Veterinarians, horse owners keep wary eye on equine herpes outbreak

Veterinarians, horse owners keep wary eye on equine herpes outbreak

June 4th, 2011 by Ben Benton in News

Dr. Michael White, from left, treats Megan, a horse at Crossroads Equine Veterinary Services for a sinus infection as Ciara Wright keeps Megan calm Friday in Ringgold, Ga. White treats horses for various ailments at Crossroads Equine Veterinary Services. Staff Photo by Allison Carter/Chattanooga Times Free Press

An outbreak of equine herpes at an April horse competition in Utah has horse owners and veterinarians across the country watching their four-legged friends for symptoms of a potentially deadly virus.

"We're relying on people being responsible about exposure," Ringgold, Ga., veterinarian Dr. Michael S. White said.

White said he's heard of no cases in Tennessee or Georgia, but local horse owners are worried about the potential spread of the virus. An outbreak of the contagious disease appears related to a cutting horse show in Ogden, Utah, last month.

Equine herpes usually causes mild, flulike symptoms, but the virus can cause some respiratory or neurological problems that in some cases can lead to death, according to officials.

Respiratory disease is most common in weaned foals and yearlings, but older horses are more likely to transmit the virus without showing signs of infection, according to the American Association of Equine Practitioners. There are several strains, but the one involved in the Utah outbreak is the most dangerous and poses more of a risk of abortion in mares.

"The biggest problem with herpes virus, just like in people, is that particular virus likes to go latent. Then whenever you're in a stressful situation, it can rear its ugly head again," White said.

There are vaccines available for the strain that causes respiratory problems and abortions, he said, but the vaccines do not protect against the strain that produces neurological problems.

While there are no known local cases, state veterinary officials are making information available to horse owners to prevent the spread of the disease here.

A notice from Tennessee State Veterinarian Charles Hatcher's office warns owners that the virus is "highly contagious" among horses. However, there is no threat to humans, spokesman Tom Womack said.

Womack said horse owners should watch for symptoms that indicate infection including fever, coughing and nasal discharge; and in foals, weakness, jaundice and respiratory distress. Neurological symptoms include poor coordination in the limbs, urine dribbling or retention, bladder weakness and the inability to get up after lying down.

University of Tennessee associate dean for research and graduate studies at Veterinarian Medical Center Dr. Michael F. McEntee said members of the horse community usually respond quickly when disease starts to spread.

"With something like that that's starting to pop up, people are pretty good about relaying information," McEntee said. "The word gets around."

White said he got a lot of phone calls, especially during the first few weeks after the Utah outbreak.

"I had a couple of [horse owners] who were going to a clinic in Texas, and they were really concerned because that's getting on out there where the herpes virus has been seen," White said.

Dayton, Tenn., horseman J. Larry Simpson said he was worried about the virus when he took his horse, Bojangles Midnight Blaze, to Texas on May 8, the day the Utah event closed. Simpson, a contestant on the reality television series "America's Favorite Trail Horse," took his horse to the Lone Star state for auditions and taping.

"I was worried about it because there were horses there from all over America," he said. "Just about every state had horses there."

After Simpson and Blaze returned home, he called his veterinarian and fellow horse owners to make sure everyone was alerted and taking the proper precautions.

Blaze has had no symptoms and is ready for her run for the reality series' top spot this fall, he said.

Simpson said the outbreak is affecting competitive events as summer arrives, such as the trail event the association he belongs to holds.

"The American Competitive Trail Horse Association has canceled 100 competitive trail rides in June," he said.

Simpson, who's a member of the trail horse association, said each of the 100 rides typically attracts about 40 horses.

Other events are affected, too.

For the first time in its 32-year history, the National Pony Express Association is postponing its annual re-enactment of the famous ride from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento, Calif., this summer because of the outbreak, The Associated Press reported.

Simpson said another competition he planned to attend in Arkansas was canceled.

"They're trying to keep it from spreading and to give it a chance to die out," he said.

The competitive horse rider said he is taking precautions with Blaze in the meantime. He plans to go to a show in Alabama this weekend.

"I'll just make sure she is stalled in such a way that she can't touch another horse," he said. "I'll make sure when I'm on her, that I don't let her touch noses with another horse. No kisses."