Study highlights concerns over horse biosecurity in NZ

Only 33% of New Zealand horse property owners reported having biosecurity arrangements for visiting horse professionals.
Only 33% of New Zealand horse property owners reported having biosecurity arrangements for visiting horse professionals.

Research has revealed worrying shortcomings in the biosecurity practices of non-commercial horse owners in New Zealand.

Researchers at Massey University reached the conclusion based on analysis of results from a 2009 postal survey of New Zealand horse owners.

Their study, published in the journal “Preventive Veterinary Medicine”, found that few of the biosecurity practices implemented on non-commercial horse properties would protect against infectious diseases.

They described baseline biosecurity on non-commercial horse properties in the country as poor and in need of improvement to be effective against endemic and exotic diseases.

The researchers, led by Dr Sarah Rosanowski, conducted the survey to explore biosecurity practices on non-commercial horse properties, to get data on the number of visits by horse professionals, and any practices that visitors were required to follow before having contact with the resident horses.

In total there were 791 respondents, of which 83 per cent answered at least one question relating to biosecurity practices.

Of the respondents, 95 per cent had at least one biosecurity practice for arriving horses.

“Only 31 per cent of properties isolated horses for more than four days, and few respondents checked for pyrexia [fever] or other clinical signs of infectious disease in new horses,” the researchers wrote.

“Overall, 79 per cent of properties had horse professionals visit, but only 33 per cent of respondents reported having biosecurity arrangements for these visitors.

“Most properties had some knowledge about newly arriving horses, but the effectiveness of these practices for biosecurity were questionable, as few practices would stop disease spread to resident horses,” they wrote.

The authors noted horse professionals were likely candidates for disease spread due to their regular contact with horses, the limited biosecurity arrangements required by horse owners, and the frequency of visits.

They recommended development of a plan to improve biosecurity for endemic and exotic diseases.

The researchers noted that many respondents had some biosecurity practices relating to the arrival of new horses, which varied widely.

“While most respondents knew the origin and veterinary history of arriving horses, few physically examined new horses for the clinical signs of infectious disease.

“However, physical examinations for infectious disease would be ineffective as a biosecurity strategy, without the addition of isolating newly arriving horses,” they said.

Three-quarters of respondents were found to isolate horses on arrival, with 31 per cent of properties isolating horses for more than four days.

The authors noted that the survey was undertaken after the highly publicised equine influenza outbreak in Australia in 2007.

Sarah Rosanowski with her horse, Manfield.
Researcher Sarah Rosanowski with her horse, Manfield. © Colin Louisson

The researchers had wondered whether New Zealand horse owners had developed greater awareness as a result of that outbreak, but the evidence did not suggest it.

“Due to the low level of biosecurity identified in the current survey, there does not seem to be evidence for heightened awareness, unless the level of biosecurity practiced was even lower before the equine influenza outbreak.”

Even though most properties reported horse professionals visiting, 69 per cent of them did not have biosecurity protocols for them. This could facilitate disease spread between properties, the authors warned.

“The importance of horse professionals in facilitating disease spread is exacerbated by the frequency that these individuals are visiting properties.

“Horse health professionals, farriers, equine dentists and veterinarians, spend time in close proximity to horses when they visit properties to interact with horses, and these professionals would visit many horses on multiple properties each day.”

The study found that horses were kept for competition on 40 per cent of non-commercial horse properties in New Zealand, and properties that kept horses for competition had more horse movements than others.

“However, the current study did not investigate whether biosecurity practices were applied to resident horses returning to the property after competing. Instead, the current study focused on biosecurity practices for newly arriving horses.

“Therefore, it cannot be concluded from the current study that effective biosecurity strategies, like isolation, are being applied to returning resident horses in the same manner as newly arriving horses, on properties that reported the movement of horses.”

They continued: “At the current time, there are no plans to improve biosecurity practices to control disease, although based on the findings of the current study, the development of a strategy to improve biosecurity practices is recommended.

“It is not known whether the lack of biosecurity practices is due to a knowledge gap about the importance of biosecurity or how to implement biosecurity practices, or whether horse property owners are aware of the importance of biosecurity, but choose not to implement effective practices.”

It suggested that a targeted education programme about biosecurity aimed at farriers, veterinarians and equine dentists might prove effective in cutting their disease-spread potential.

“Additionally, the identification of properties that move horses – a high-risk activity in terms of disease spread – enables this group to be targeted through attendance at equine events, particularly competitions.”

Rosanowski, S.M., et al., The implementation of biosecurity practices and visitor protocols on non-commercial horse properties in New Zealand. PREVET (2012), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.prevetmed.2012.05.001

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