Equine flu crisis shuts down British horse races

Although winter isn’t considered “flu season” for horses like it is for humans, an outbreak of equine flu in the United Kingdom has led the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) to cancel all horse races this week. Horse racing will not resume until at least February 13.

“This precautionary approach is intended to ensure we put the health of the horse population and control of the virus first, and avoid any unnecessary risk that might come from returning to racing too quickly,” BHA said in a statement.

BBC Sport reports that six horses from the county of Cheshire tested positive for equine flu, even though they had previously been vaccinated. The infected horses had raced the day before, and potentially exposed other animals. As a result, races in over 20 locations were called off. A reported 174 racing stables are on lockdown.

Further testing of horses is necessary to determine the risk the outbreak poses. In the meantime, BHA is working with trainers to limit the flu’s spread by discussing biosecurity measures that should be taken.

“We appreciate the impact that this may have on the sport commercially, but disease control in order to mitigate the risk of further disruption to the sport — and safeguard the health and welfare of our horses — must be a priority,” BHA said.

What is equine flu?

Equine flu has a lot in common with human flu. It’s caused by a highly contagious virus that spreads when contamination is inhaled. For example, an infected horse might cough onto nearby equipment and the virus is inhaled by a healthy horse nearby.

With an incubation period of one to three days, the virus causes a sudden fever, coughing, a runny nose and swelling of the lymph nodes under the jaw. The Horse reports that in some cases, a horse can be infected and not show any clinical signs, increasing the risk of the virus circulating through the horse population.

Because close contact between horses makes it more likely to spread, horse races and similar events can be hotbeds for disease. Fortunately, horses usually recover with treatment and rest within a few weeks, but the downtime can be hugely disruptive to equine sports and related industries. In some cases, bacterial pneumonia can develop, and antibiotics must be used.

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