What you need to know about equine herpes

By Julie Harding on |

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Equine herpes virus
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Four horses have died recently of equine herpes in the Hertfordshire to Bedfordshire area, bringing the virus back into focus.

Outbreaks in the UK occur reasonably regularly, but, generally, they are restricted to relatively few horses, thanks to stringent and immediate biosecurity measures. The yard affected is now in quarantine to prevent equine herpes, a virulent virus, spreading like wildfire. Any horse that goes to a competition or mixes with horses beyond the confines of its own yard can be at risk.

There are five types of equine herpes that affect the domestic horse, the most common and the most serious being EHV-1 and EHV-4. It is thought that most horses are carriers of equine herpes, but few will go on to develop the full-blown disease unless they are stressed or given high doses of corticosteroids.

As a horse owner, what are the signs of equine herpes that you should be aware of and what should you do if you suspect your horse has contracted equine herpes?

The warning signs of equine herpes

Horses with equine herpes will typically display a fever or high temperature and may have nasal discharge, enlarged lymph nodes and a cough. They may also appear depressed and lack interest in their feed.

Additionally, mares may abort foals, while neurological signs include a lack of co-ordination, paralysis of the hind legs and the inability to get up when lying down. It is this neurological form that is the most dangerous kind and around a third of horses affected like this cannot be saved.

Long term, it is believed that equine herpes affects a horse’s immune system, making him less able to fight off other infections.

Call the vet

If your horse displays any of the signs mentioned above, the vet should be called immediately and the horse kept isolated, well away from others on the yard.

Any horses that have come into contact with the affected one should also be confined to base, even if there is, as yet, no specific diagnosis. This way there is no risk of equine herpes spreading into the wider community.
The period of isolation can vary dramatically — from 24 hours to weeks. Ask your vet for advice as each case is different.

Don’t forget, too, that if your horse is diagnosed with equine herpes, you should inform the organisers of any shows, hunts or rides you have attended so that they can warn others you may have come into contact with.

Prevention is better than cure

Equine herpes can be transmitted across short distances in the air, when horses come into direct contact with each other, especially via droplets from coughing or snorting, or indirectly via contaminated items, such as shared buckets and tack.

Therefore, use equipment that is dedicated to each individual animal; be scrupulous about hygiene on the yard and, if you take the horse to a competition, keep it separate from others during the event.

If, on returning home, you suspect that it might have been in contact with an infected anima, keep it isolated and follow the procedure detailed above. Take its temperature twice a day, too, so that you will be aware of any spikes, which may be a tell-tale sign.

Prior to exposure — and not during an outbreak — you may want to consider vaccinating your horse against equine herpes, although there is, as yet, no vaccine for the neurological form.

What’s the cure?

Your vet may treat an infected horse with anti-viral drugs or anti-inflammatories. The vaccines currently available can help to reduce the spread of the virus, but there is, as yet, no magic cure. Most mild respiratory cases will respond well to rest.

When can I compete again?

The health of your horse and the wider equestrian community is far more important than one competition, so act responsibly and wait until you are given the all clear by your vet if your horse has come into contact with equine herpes.

Read more about equine herpes on the Animal Trust Health’s website

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