Safe and Secure

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Recent West Coast outbreaks of a potentially deadly neurological strain of the equine herpes virus (EHV-1) have driven home an important point with equine professionals: biosecurity at boarding and other horse facilities is an absolute must.

The EHV-1 outbreak occurred last spring when a horse that had attended the National Cutting Horse Association Western National Championship show in Ogden, Utah, was diagnosed with the illness after returning home to a boarding facility in California. Consequently, 10 horses that were exposed to the infected horse contracted the disease, causing widespread panic among West Coast horse owners.

Disease outbreaks among horses can be prevented if equine facilities owners practice good biosecurity, and encourage their clients to do the same.

“Beyond the basic desire to simply keep our horses as healthy and happy as possible by preventing infections, biosecurity is particularly important in equine facilities because of the way we keep our horses,” says Maureen Anderson, DVM, DVSc, Dip., ACVIM, large animal internal medicine specialist at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada. “Our husbandry practices have the potential to create a perfect storm with regard to disease outbreaks.”

Dr. Anderson explains that at most equine facilities, there is often a large number of horses with a wide variety of backgrounds being kept together in close confines.

“These horses come from different situations as far as what they have been exposed to and how healthy they are, and they are all being kept close together in the same building and being looked after by a common group of people,” she says. “Add to that that these same animals may be coming and going frequently—visiting other facilities where they can either pick up or spread pathogens to other groups of horses—and in very short time, a lot of horses can be exposed to a contagious pathogen.”

While Dr. Anderson notes that even the best biosecurity program won’t prevent every horse from ever getting sick or bringing some pathogen back to the barn, if handled correctly, a good program can stop one or two sick horses from turning into a disaster with dozens of affected animals, facility-wide quarantines that go on for weeks, missed shows, testing expenses, extra veterinary bills and more.

Protecting Horses

The type of biosecurity measures you take at your barn will depend on the layout of your property, the number of horses you have, and the number of comings and goings of horses from the facility.

“The ideal solution is going to be different for every facility, because each facility has its own unique challenges in terms of layout, population, location, management, owner values, and so on,” says Dr. Anderson. “But there are a few basic components that every facility needs to think about.”

According to Dr. Anderson, the two most important components in an effective infection control program are communication and cooperation. The most perfect infection control program will be completely ineffective unless everyone understands why it’s important, knows what they have to do and are willing to do it, she says.

Facility owners should work with a veterinarian to design a program that works best for them. That said, there are some basic rules all facility owners should follow:

  • Quarantine new boarders for at least two weeks in stalls that do not allow direct contact with other horses.
  • Require proof of current vaccinations from new boarders. Talk to a veterinarian in your area about which vaccines should be mandated.
  • Take the temperature of any horse that seems unwell, and keep it away from other horses until it is cleared by a veterinarian.
  • Avoid sharing equipment between horses, such as buckets, tack and twitches. If you do have to share, disinfect items with a mixture of 1:10 bleach/water mixture first.
  • Promote hand hygiene in the barn. According to Dr. Anderson, hands have the most potential to spread pathogens from horse to horse and even between horses and people. Keep bathrooms stocked with anti-bacterial soap, and place alcohol-based hand sanitizer dispensers around the facility.

Get Educated

To encourage horse owners and facilities manager to implement good biosecurity practices, Equine Guelph has developed “Beat the Bugs,” a program promoting biosecurity throughout all sectors of the horse industry.

“Increasing knowledge of best biosecurity practices stands to benefit the horse industry by reducing the risk of disease transmission and, in turn, could create a huge positive economic impact and prevent a potential catastrophic outbreak,” says Equine Guelph director, Gayle Ecker, of the program.

“Beat the Bugs” is being launched in March, and will allow participants the opportunity to learn and put a biosecurity plan in place before their busiest season. The program includes four workshops, conducted by biosecurity specialists, offered free of charge on a first come, first served basis. The workshops are scheduled for selected cities in Ontario, Canada, including London, Sudbury and Kemptville. The fourth workshop will be held at either Woodbine or Mohawk racetrack.

For those south of the border who are unable to attend a workshop, or who are looking to take their biosecurity knowledge to the next level, the two-week Equine Biosecurity e-Session will be available online to participants for a $75 fee.

For more information on the “Beat the Bugs” initiative, and to view the Biosecurity Risk Calculator, visit www.EquineGuelph.ca.

In the end, a little precaution can go a long way. By devoting separate stalls and turnouts for sick or new horses, and making sure that clean hands are a part of your barn culture, you can help avoid the miserable implications of an outbreak.