Contagious Happens: How the Simplest Scenario Can Affect Your Horse

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Consider this scenario:

You board at a public stable. Another boarder took her horse to a horse show where it was stabled next to a sick horse with a runny nose and fever, with which it shared a water bucket at one point. Despite this, the other boarder doesn't do anything beyond the usual when she returns to the barn.

A few days later, that horse is quiet and not eating very well. The owner takes the horse's temperature, and finds out it has a fever. Rather than calling a vet, she gives the horse bute for a couple of days, and continues to let it be turned out with other horses.

After a few days, the horse has enlarged lymph nodes under its jaw, and two other horses that were turned out in the same field now have a fever. One of those horses' owners calls a vet, who realizes that a strangles outbreak is underway, with multiple horses affected.

The barn owner asks that no one takes any horse on or off the farm while the outbreak is being controlled, and that every horse get three nasopharyngeal wash cultures taken to see who is infected (with each owner paying for his or her own horses' testing).

I made this particular scenario up, but it's something that does happen. Some infectious diseases and outbreaks are not preventable. Some are. In this case, problems could have been prevented at multiple different points along the way, including:

* At the show, by limiting contact with other horses and not sharing items.
* Upon arrival back at the farm, with the owner realizing her horse might have been exposed to an infectious disease. The person could have quarantined the horse while monitoring it to see if it had picked anything up.
* When illness was first noticed. Fever and decreased appetite are classic signs of infection, and given the chance of exposure in this case, it's clearly an indication that something infectious was probably happening. Isolating such a horse and getting it looked at by a veterinarian as soon as possible are critical. Horses with strangles are not infectious for the first few days after they spike a fever, so isolating them at this point can contain the disease and prevent an outbreak. Ignoring it, or just treating the fever and continuing to expose the animal to other horses just spreads it around.

You could clearly argue that the other boarder was negligent and responsible for the other sick horses.

But what would you do?

a) Nothing. (Or more likely, vent to your friends but do nothing). This is the standard passive approach. It's the easiest to do, but doesn't really provide an incentive for people to do what's right.

b) Yell at them. Let them know they have been irresponsible and made other horses sick. This might make you feel better and might make them realize what they did was wrong. For some people it might have a major impact, but other people don't really care what other people say.

c) Send them the bill for all of the testing that was required, vet bills for any sick horses, and any other expenses.

d) Kick them out of the barn.

These two actions (C or D) are rarely taken, but they provide the "stick" that is often needed to get people to behave properly. For this to be fair and effective, however, a few things must be present: The people must know what they're supposed to do. If they really had no clue that anything they did was wrong, it's hard to justify such punitive action. Also, the people must know in advance what is expected of them, and what the implications are of doing it wrong.

A lot of this comes down to a good boarding agreement. If the barn rules are clearly laid out, in writing, then people know what is expected. If it is emphasized that the barn rules are serious and must be followed (and why), people may pay more attention.

If the agreement clearly states that failure to follow the rules may lead to offender being financially responsible for reasonable expenses, it's a big "stick" and it might be enough to make some reluctant people behave properly (or leave before they cause a problem).

A good boarding agreement protects both the farm and the boarders. Infection control practices need to be built into it, and the implications of misbehaving need to be clear. I think it is perfectly reasonable for someone who deliberately breaks rules to be responsible for the outcome, especially if they've been warned.

This excellent advice first appeared in The Equid Blog, a horse health information service of the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. It is reprinted with the permission of J. Scott Weese DVM DVSc DipACVIM.

Top photo: ? 2009 Serge Melkivia Wylio.
Barn protocol photo by Fran Jurga.

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