By Maegen Brown CVT, Oct 1 2018 05:29PM
With fewer than 100 cases of rabies per year, it may be easy to try and disregard the disease. However, it is a very dangerous situation to have a non-vaccinated horse, especially if your horse is residing at a boarding farm with several people that come in contact with your horse. Rabies is one of the core vaccines recommended by the American Association of Equine Practitioners. It is a zoonotic disease; thus making it a human health concern as well as animal health.
Rabies is a viral disease that can infect all mammals and leads to neurological disease; which causes your horse to move or behave abnormally. The most common way rabies is transmitted is through bite wounds by infected animals. Once a horse or human is exposed to the virus it multiplies in the muscle tissue, then travels up the peripheral nerves and enters the central nervous system (Brain, Spinal cord). The virus then moves from the central nervous system to various tissues in the body; most importantly the salivary glands. This is what makes it possible for the virus to be transmitted through saliva via bite wounds.
That said, rabies is rare in horses; however, the outcome is fatal 100% of the time. Rabies can be carried by all mammals, but most commonly the infection is introduced by a wild animal. In the United States, the most common wildlife that caries the virus are: bats, skunks, red fox, and raccoons. Infections in horses tend to increase in late summer when wildlife populations have peaked. A lot of people ask; if it is rare, why should I vaccinate my horse? Again, rabies is fatal in horses; there is no treatment. Prevention is key! You also can get rabies from your horse. Another important reason to vaccinate is; there is no diagnostic test other than post-mortem exam. So your horse would have to be euthanized to even diagnose the disease.
Time from infection to becoming symptomatic can be anywhere from 2 to 9 weeks, but may take as long as 15 months. The timeline depends on where the bite occurred; the farther it is from the central nervous system the longer the symptoms take to arise. Unfortunately rabies can appear like other diseases that can affect the horse’s neurologic system. This is why it is important to contact your veterinarian as soon as possible. If your horse has an obvious bite wound and is acting abnormal; you need to call your veterinarian so they can help assess the horse. There are a variety of neurologic symptoms associated with horses infected with rabies. Some of the more common ones are: acting depressed, not eating or drinking, behavior changes- such as irritability, disorientation, or panic, develop seizures, can become partially or totally paralyzed in hind limbs, develop ataxia (wobbly gait), recumbent (unable to rise). Death usually occurs in 5- 10 days after symptoms begin, up to 14 days has been reported.
Since rabies is a zoonotic disease; it is important that you take precautions if you suspect your horse may be infected. If you are suspicious of your horse being infected with rabies contact your veterinarian immediately and isolate the horse away from other horses and people. Wear gloves and a face shield or goggles. Do not put your hands near your horse’s mouth, as the virus contained in the horse’s saliva can enter your system through small cracks or cuts in your skin. Any fully vaccinated animal (vaccinated more than 30 days before being bitten) should be vaccinated immediately and observed for 45 days. An exposed unvaccinated animal should be euthanized immediately or quarantined for 6 months. If your horse has indeed been exposed to the virus you and any other people in contact with the horse need to have post-exposure prophylaxis; which is a series of vaccinations. Lastly rabies is a reportable disease; which means the state or federal health authorities must be consulted when managing a potential case.