When it’s not just the sniffles

Three HorsesYou’ve just arrived at the show grounds and you’re looking forward to going for a few blue ribbons. Your horse, however, has other plans and greets you in the morning with a sticky mess on his nose and a cough that he just can’t seem to shake. Equine respiratory disease complex (ERDC) has found you.

Stress is one of the contributing factors to ERDC that can stem from shipping and showing your horse. Shipping is particularly problematic because, in most cases, after shipping your horse will be exposed to new animals and the diseases they may be harboring. Because of this, horse shows are likely areas for the spread of disease due to close confinement of many animals in a stressful environment. Any event where stressed (shipped) horses are housed together for any period of time can result in development of ERDC.

ERDC is so named because it is just that — complex. An array of viruses and bacteria can contribute to respiratory disease and cause nasal discharge, fever, coughing and difficulty breathing. Viruses commonly found as part of ERDC include equine herpesvirus, equine reovirus, equine adenovirus, equine arteritis virus, equine influenza and equine rhinovirus. Bacteria can also contribute to ERDC, either as a primary infections, or coming after an infection with a virus as a secondary infection. Some of these are self-limiting problems that only serve to ruin your weekend while others can be long-standing, significant health problems. Some respiratory infections may even predispose your horse to non-infectious problems like heaves.

While not every cough or sniffle requires veterinary intervention, a seemingly mild infection can turn into a severe problem quickly. Any horse that goes off feed, develops a fever, coughs frequently, or produces large amount of nasal discharge should be seen immediately by a veterinarian.

That being said, prevention should always be at the top of the list for any disease. Vaccinate your horse according to AAEP guidelines and your veterinarian’s assessment of risk. Be honest when speaking to your veterinarian about your horse’s environment, travel plans and activities, so that risk can accurately be determined. Your veterinarian may also recommend an immunostimulant prior to a stressful event.  Immunostimulants are used to give your horse’s immune system a boost and hopefully fight off infections before clinical signs set in.

Prevention is more than just vaccination, however. Isolation of sick animals, minimization of stress, reduction of contact with outside animals, and maintenance of a dust-free environment will help reduce the incidence of ERDC. Be smart when at events — don’t use communal watering areas for your horse, don’t allow close contact with outside horses and keep the feed and water buckets in your horse’s stall clean and safe.

Sometimes even the best prevention fails, and treatment may be necessary. In this case, make sure your veterinarian is aware of any medications you are using for your horse before starting treatment for ERDC. Sometimes the medications your horse is on for mild lameness issues may be counterproductive in a horse with ERDC. Your veterinarian may prescribe broad-spectrum antibiotics to fight off any secondary bacterial infections and it is important to finish the antibiotic treatment prescribed even if your horse improves before the prescription runs out.

Treatment of viral diseases is usually symptomatic. This means that drugs to control fever, limit nasal discharge and reduce coughing may all be recommended. Immunostimulants are also useful in infected horses to reduce the severity and time of disease. Anti-viral drugs may be recommended in some cases, but they must be used early in the disease and can be quite expensive when treating adult horses.

If you own horses, you will see ERDC at some point. Remember to use preventative measures to limit the chances of your horses contracting respiratory disease. If that fails, however, early treatment by your veterinarian can help reduce the time spent recovering and get you back in the saddle faster.

Neogen’s Animal Safety Division manufactures and markets a complete line of diagnostics, veterinary instruments, veterinary pharmaceuticals, therapeutic supplements, disinfectants, and rodenticides. For more information, click here.

This article was written by Joe Lyman, DVM, MS, professional services veterinarian for Neogen.

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