I have been told, and would not argue the point, that people are never hit twice by a train while trying to "outrun" it through a railroad intersection. Either the collision accounts for the second date at the bottom of their grave marker or, if they survive, it was such a horrifying experience they will now spot the train from a quarter of a mile and will wait 30 seconds after it passes to even cross the intersection. I have no scientific data to back this up, but I suspect that is the case for horse owners who have tried to outrun diseases by not vaccinating their horses and ended up with what seemed to be a train wreck.
Every year, along about the middle of January, I become aware the days are getting longer and that winter will probably not last forever. Occasionally, I catch myself daydreaming about fishing, riding my motorcycle and riding my horses. (When spring arrives, I don’t do nearly enough of any of those three activities.) Most people are familiar with Ronald Reagan’s quote, "The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man." I tend to agree. Riding a horse does a lot to get your mind off the worries of everyday life and relieve stress. Of course, if you try to ride the wrong horse, all of that is out the window. But still, to most of us who enjoy horses, spring is the ideal time to ride…not too hot, not too cold. It’s a good way to shake off the doldrums of winter.
On the other hand, spring does bring out snakes and mosquitoes and poison ivy and viral encephalitis. So we take the good with the bad. But if we prepare for the bad, we can tip the scale in favor of the good. Do you ever wonder what mosquitoes do during the off-season? I do. I figure they are meeting in board rooms somewhere plotting their strategy for how they can make us and other warm-blooded creatures miserable when warm weather arrives. I have sat here while writing this article trying to think of one redeeming quality a mosquito possesses. I sometimes surprise myself, but I did come up with something. Mosquitoes help the economy. They provide us with a need for insect repellents, anti-itch salves and ointments to rub out mosquito bites, public health monitoring studies and encephalitis vaccines for our horses…which is what I want to discuss.
If you read my column, you have probably noticed I often point out that there are not many simple solutions to complex problems. While it is true that there are not many, I am going to give you one simple solution to what could be a horrible problem. Get out your pen and paper and write this down. Here it is: VACCINATE YOUR HORSES IN THE SPRING AND AS DIRECTED BY YOUR LOCAL VETERINARIAN. Can I say that any plainer? Every year horses become ill and die or have to be euthanized and our diagnostic lab confirms a diagnosis of Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) or West Nile virus (WNV). And that’s not to mention the number of horses that die from tetanus, a disease that, for some reason, is attracted to horses.
I suppose the horse owner who doesn’t vaccinate has no concept of how devastating encephalitis can be when a horse contracts the disease. The conclusion to the disease is often fatal or the horse must be euthanized because of brain damage. The two mosquito-borne encephalitis viruses we in Alabama are concerned about are primarily WNV and EEE virus. These two viruses are also of public health concern. A person cannot contract the disease from their horse. Humans get the disease the same way horses become infected – from mosquitoes carrying the virus from infected birds. However, it is not uncommon to learn that people have become infected in the same geographic areas as we find horses with WNV or EEE. Horses should, at the very least, be vaccinated in the spring against the common mosquito-borne encephalitis viruses and against tetanus. Now if you show your horse and it gets the flu, don’t go saying, "Dr. Frazier said all we needed to vaccinate against was WNV, EEE and tetanus." I said that would be the bare minimum. You go talk to your veterinarian about a vaccination program fitting your particular horses.
Another virus that can affect horses and all other mammals that always concerns us is the rabies virus. Dr. Slaten, one of my associates, tells a story of about when 10 years ago on a Sunday night a practitioner contacted him at home. He said he couldn’t get in touch with the lab director at Hanceville, but would really like to get the horse to the lab after it was euthanized because it was attacking the owner’s truck. Dr. Slaten agreed rabies should be ruled out, but speculated it was more likely to snow in May than the horse having rabies, given the rarity of seeing it in horses in Alabama. The horse was euthanized and brought to the lab. And if you haven’t already figured it out, the horse did have rabies. It turned out the virus was genetically identical to the virus sometimes found in bats in the North Alabama area. Now I can’t tell you if your horse is going to be bitten by a rabid bat. The bigger issue is that you can’t tell me if your horse has been bitten by a rabid bat until it begins to show signs of rabies. Then it’s too late…unless your horse has been vaccinated against rabies. I suggest you discuss rabies vaccine with your veterinarian.
Another fact worth noting is, unlike WNV and EEE, you cannot contract rabies from your horse, but you can get rabies from contacting saliva from a horse shedding the rabies virus. That is one of the reasons we strongly encourage you to contact your local veterinarian or our office if you have a horse (or any other livestock) showing neurological signs. It is extremely important rabies be ruled out anytime an animal is showing signs of incoordination, staggering, aggressiveness, loss of appetite, difficulty in swallowing, inability to swallow or depression. It is interesting to note that many of the diseases affecting the brain may look like one another. Due to the fact that rabies is nearly 100 percent fatal once signs begin, let me again urge you to report animals showing central nervous system problems. It’s not a problem to test a thousand animals for rabies and get one thousand negative results. The mistake we cannot afford to make is to have a case of rabies go undiagnosed.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go vaccinate my horses and make sure my tack is ready for the first nice day I get a chance to ride.
Dr. Tony Frazier is the State Veterinarian for the state of Alabama.