Last week the UK Equestrian population was thrown into panic. British racing was shut down due to three cases of equine influenza in racehorses. A particularly nasty strain of flu too. It’s a subject that we need to take seriously, but we need to be careful not to create a mass hysteria.
Flu in horses is a highly contagious serious respiratory virus, which whilst not usually fatal itself, can lead to potentially life threatening secondary infections such as pneumonia. Flu, along with tetanus, is recommended by vets that horses be vaccinated against, and many competition bodies insist on it.
Signs of equine flu
A very high temperature of 39-41C (103-106F) which lasts for one to three days
A frequent harsh, dry cough that can last for several weeks
A clear, watery nasal discharge that may become thick and yellow or green
Enlarged glands under the lower jaw
Clear discharge from the eyes and redness around eyes
Depression and loss of appetite
Filling of the lower limbs
Equine flu is endemic, which means that there is always the odd case somewhere. Our problem at the moment is two fold. Firstly, the horses who were first identified to be suffering from flu were vaccinated. Which means that this strain of the virus is new, and particularly vigorous. Secondly, the fact that it was racehorses who first contracted the virus means there is a massive risk of the disease spreading nationally due to the number of horses attending each race meet and the distance of which they travelled, the number of humans and horses in which a racehorse comes into contact with on a daily basis.
British Racing did completely the right thing by shutting racing down, taking swabs of all horses who were at risk fixtures, quarantining yards and risk horses, and getting the virus under control. It is necessary to inform the wider equine community too, because the flu virus is airborne so there is a risk to local equines. The fact that racing was halted made national news, and unfortunately I did hear some misinformed newsreaders, who could have potentially caused panic amongst the general public. Really, they should have just warned the general public not to touch horses they meet out walking to help reduce the risk of the disease spreading – there was talk about equine flu being contagious to humans!
Now the virus strain has been identified as the Florida Clane 1 H3N8 strain, vets can begin to research whether horses have been vaccinated against this strain. Vaccination doesn’t mean that they are immune to all types of flu, but it does mean that they will have reduced symptoms if they do contract it. From my reading, it appears that this strain of flu has only been used in vaccines since September 2018. Together with the fact that vaccinations become less effective after six months, it is recommended that all vaccinated horses have a booster vaccination now. Unvaccinated horses are advised to have the initial vaccination course.
So as well as some vaccinated thoroughbreds contracting flu, there has been some isolated and seemingly random cases in non-thoroughbreds across the country. Part of me is curious: if the racehorses hadn’t had flu or meets been cancelled because of it, would the general equestrian public have heard about the stand-alone cases so soon? Perhaps locally, but I don’t think it would have been such big news until now, when there are more cases.
So what does this mean for us?
As horse owners, you need to stay abreast with the news, and be aware if there are any cases near to you. It is worth booking your horse in to have a booster vaccination. I’m lucky: Phoenix is due her booster anyway so was booked in for this week. I have brought Otis’s forward by a couple of months too, for peace of mind. Plus I can’t possibly forget their boosters next year if they and Matt (Mum’s brought his jabs forward a couple of weeks too) are due on the same day!
In terms of competing, or leaving the yard, advice varies. As far as I can see, if there is a case of flu in your county, or local area, than a total lockdown is advisable to reduce the risk of your horse contracting the disease. Otherwise, most vets are advising that you continue with your normal routine, albeit with care. Don’t share equipment between horses, don’t let horses touch noses out hacking or at competitions. Learn the symptoms of equine flu, and be vigilant. I guess I just think that if I don’t need to go out, then I won’t. However, if there’s something I really want to do (such as a clinic or competition) then I will risk assess it to decide if it’s worth going.
I think it’s also important to speak to any visitors to your yard: farrier, dentist, instructor, physio, etc. Check that they are following basic bio security steps, haven’t come into contact with infected horses or worked in a risk area. From a work perspective, I’m lucky that I work in quite a small area, so don’t have the worry of venturing near to any danger zones (yet!). I need to keep an eye on the news and hope it doesn’t spead any closer. I will continue with my usual hand sanitising procedure between yards, and add a boot dip as well as have a couple of changes of clothes in my car. Then if I do come into contact with a suspicious horse, I can completely change upon leaving that yard.
I think this flu outbreak will give everyone a bit of a kick up the bum with regards to bio security. Competitions and venues open for hire are now requesting to see passports and proof of vaccination within the last six months before allowing horses on site. To me, it’s always seemed silly that you arrive at a competition, unload, tack up, chat to the competitor next to you, and then go and present your passport. Surely, as with an airport, you should have to show your passport before entering.
With competitions getting more vigilant, hopefully more owners will vaccinate their horses if they’ve allowed them to lapse. I read that a shocking 60% of the equine population are unvaccinated. Below is an image which sums up why it is important that the majority of horses are vaccinated to protect them all from disease.
Along with competitions bucking their ideas up with bio security, yards should also be more conscientious over bringing new horses onto the property. Most yards I’ve been to have an isolation procedure on paper, which is used if a horse comes from a suspect area, but in general are very lax about integrating new animals. Vets recommend an isolation period of 21 days, which seems an awful long time! But at least after 21 days your horse is fit and healthy. Hopefully from now on yards will be stricter with their isolation procedure and take more caution with imported horses or those who have been in contact with those.
I do think that it’s important to maintain transparency. Strangles comes with a stigma, and we should be careful that equine flu doesn’t get the same taint. After all, no one holds a flu party, like parents hold chicken pox parties. It’s bad luck if your horse picks up the virus. So far I’ve seen that yards and businesses are being very honest when they have a case of Equine Flu. Which will hopefully help reduce the spread of the virus in the local area. Unfortunately though, the dreaded keyboard warriors have been at it again, and written many an unkind word on social media. Come on equestrians, we need to work together and support each other to stop the spread of Florida Clane 1!
Below are some useful websites to get all the latest updates on the flu outbreak: