Signs and symptoms of equine herpes:
• Decreased coordination
• Nasal discharge
• Urine dribbling
• Loss of tail tone
• Hind limb weakness
• Leaning against a wall or fence to maintain balance
• Inability to rise
Source: The Colorado Department of Agriculture
Veterinarian Kelly Hepworth stood in a corral Wednesday at Bear Creek Animal Hospital and vaccinated his own horse against EHV-1, or equine herpes virus.
Hepworth said he has received numerous phone calls from horse owners interested in the same vaccination.
“The phone is just ringing off the hook,” he said. “We’ve had a bunch of people wanting to get the vaccine within the next couple of days.”
Wayne Davis, veterinarian at Craig Veterinarian Hospital, said his office has experienced a similar increase in inquiries.
“We’ve received call after call after call after call,” he said.
The United States is in the midst of an apparent outbreak of EHV-1, with confirmed cases in 37 states, including Colorado. The virus can cause potentially fatal respiratory and neurological conditions.
According to a press release from the Colorado Department of Agriculture, eight cases of EHV-1 have cropped up in five counties — Boulder, Larimer, Mesa, Morgan and Weld. An additional 22 cases of the virus are suspected but unconfirmed. Two horses have been euthanized in Colorado due to severe neurological symptoms.
The outbreak has been traced to the National Cutting Horse Association’s Western National Championships, held April 29 through May 8 in Ogden, Utah.
The symptoms, the release states, are “fever, decreased coordination, nasal discharge, urine dribbling, loss of tail tone, hind limb weakness, leaning against a wall or fence to maintain balance, lethargy, and the inability to rise.”
The virus is most commonly spread through horse-to-horse contact, the release states.
Hepworth said that there is no cure for the virus.
“About all we can do is supportive care, (and) just kind of let it take its course,” he said. “By supportive care, we mean fluids, keeping them comfortable and (providing) non-steroidal anti-inflammatories.”
Traditionally, there have been two strains of equine herpes — EHV-1 and EHV-4, Hepworth said. However, the latest outbreak may signal a newcomer to the mix.
“The form that is causing the neurological disease that is causing these horses to die is kind of a variant of EHV-1,” he said. “It’s kind of a new, virulent form.
“It hasn’t been around all that long. There have been various outbreaks over the last 10 to 20 years here and there, but it’s not like we’ve been dealing with it forever.”
Davis said he’s encountered the same assessment in veterinary journals.
“They’re calling it a new disease. Even though it’s the same virus, it looks like it’s a mutation,” he said. “The symptoms are much more profound.”
Hepworth said there are two measures to prevent the spread of the virus: common sense and vaccinations.
“The biggest thing is common sense,” he said. “It’s transmitted primarily from direct horse-to-horse contact, but people can expose other horses from their equipment, hands (and) starting gates.”
If attending an event, Hepworth suggested riders keep horses separated as much as possible.
“Compete, but don’t sit around and lolligag with 20 horses in a corner and everybody chatting,” he said. “Go to the event, but go back to your trailer and tie your horse up.”
Also, Hepworth said horses shouldn’t drink from communal water sources at events.
Vaccinations are important, Hepworth said, but not a guarantee.
“We vaccinate for both strains of the herpes virus, but its effectiveness against this new virulent form is questionable,” he said. “It’s probably not going to prevent the disease, but hopefully it will lessen the symptoms.
“I would still recommend vaccinating for it, but it doesn’t then allow you to go recklessly around a lot of other horses. You still need to be careful.”
Bill Sixkiller, manager at Moffat County Fairgrounds, said that apart from a few cancellations, he’s taking a wait-and-see approach.
“We’re going to see how this thing goes,” he said of the outbreak. “If it blossoms into something bigger…”
The first major event of the season isn’t until mid-June, he said. If the virus is still active, the fairgrounds might require each horse to be evaluated by a veterinarian prior to entry.
In the meantime, as a precaution, at least one weekly event has been cancelled.
“We’ve got a jackpot team roping that we have here every Thursday night, and we’re going to cancel it this week, and possibly next week,” he said. “We also have 4-H riding out here on Monday night, and we’ll probably cancel that one, too.”
Sixkiller said he’s not sure yet how serious the outbreak is, but he’ll be watching it carefully.
“It’s hard to tell,” he said. “You have to be concerned about it, and you want to do everything you can to stop it or keep it from getting worse.
“You worry about it. It’s sure not a good thing.”
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