Rabies in horses: Monitor wildlife cases, too

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An electron micrograph of the rabies virus. It shows the rabies virus, as well as negri bodies, or cellular inclusions. Photo: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Dr Fred Murphy
An electron micrograph of the rabies virus. It shows the rabies virus, as well as negri bodies, or cellular inclusions. Photo: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Dr Fred Murphy

Rabies cases in horses totaled 44 the United States in 2011, but horses owners should also focus on the number of cases detected in wildlife, animal health company Merial says.

Rabies is invariably fatal in horses.

Veterinarian Megan Green, equine specialist with Merial’s Large Animal Veterinary division, said: “In 2011, which is the last year for which we have complete data, there were 44 confirmed cases of rabies in horses.

“But what really should be a concern for horse owners is the number of cases in wildlife as most horses are kept in areas near wildlife habitats.

“I’m sure every barn owner has seen skunks, foxes, raccoons and the occasional bat in and around their barns.”

Horse owners should be vigilant about vaccinating their horses against the disease, Green said.

Twelve cases of equine rabies have already been confirmed in 2013,

Those cases are among the hundreds discovered this year in other species, including bats, cats, dogs, cows, foxes, raccoons and skunks.

Besides the cases in horses, in the past several years, there have been thousands of incidents of animals with confirmed rabies, 92 percent of which were in wildlife, with 6694 in 2009, 6155 in 2010 and 6037 in 2011.

Unfortunately, the fate of horses that contract rabies is dismal, as rabies is always fatal. Clinical signs include, but are not limited to, going off feed, depression, excessive salivation, difficulty swallowing, lack of coordination, aggressive behavior, hyper-excitability, colic, convulsions or paralysis.

These signs are similar to other diseases affecting the horse’s nervous system, but in the case of rabies, become so severe, the horse is euthanized or dies within days.

Because there is no way to diagnose rabies in live animals, horse owners and the treating veterinarians who suspect rabies face the gut-wrenching task of sending the horse’s brain to a diagnostic laboratory where it is examined for the presence of lesions which are characteristic with rabies.

“Horse owners have significant emotional and financial resources invested in their horses over long periods of time and consider their horses to be family,” Green said.

“Their vision for the animal’s end of life tends toward retired days grazing in green pastures – not convulsions, paralysis and a painful death.”

Green urged horse owners to vaccine their animals, with Merial offering the IMRAB rabies vaccine.

Merial also offers an Outbreak Alert program, launched in June 2011. It is a tool horse owners can use to evaluate risk, especially when traveling.

The program features a website with maps indicating the presence of confirmed cases in all species, including the carriers of rabies, West Nile Virus, Eastern Equine Encephalitis, Western Equine Encephalitis, influenza, Potomac Horse Fever and Equine Herpes Virus.

For more information about Merial’s vaccines, visit equinewnv.com.

For more information about or to sign up for Merial Outbreak Alert system, visit outbreak-alert.com

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