Viral respiratory and neurologic diseases are the leading preventable causes of horse deaths. One of the core equine diseases—rabies—has a 100% fatality rate once clinical signs appear, but is easily preventable via vaccination.
“My first equine rabies case happened in a suburban barn—this family had a barn behind their house,” recalled Buff Hildreth, DVM, of Richland, Texas. “Their 2-year-old gelding, who was new to the barn, started out not wanting to eat and being a little depressed.”
She evaluated the horse in the morning and thought the animal might be colicking.
“I talked to them and told them, if he doesn’t improve, then I need to come back,” she said. “I came back that evening, and he had become averse to drinking and didn’t like to be touched.
“I could remember Dr. Joe Joyce (DVM), who told me when I was a veterinary student, ‘If it looks like everything yet nothing, think rabies,’” Hildreth said. “So, that’s when it clicked.”
Horses across the United States have the potential to be exposed to rabies through infected wildlife, commonly bats, raccoons, foxes, and skunks. No matter where a horse lives, or what a horse does, wildlife exposure is a reality.
“Turns out this horse had not previously been vaccinated against rabies,” Hildreth said. “So I … referred the horse to Texas A&M. Within the amount of time it took to hook up a trailer, the horse started having laryngeal spasms and becoming somewhat aggressive and hyperexcitable.
“Unfortunately, they only made it about 30 miles and the horse began seizing violently,” she said. “They called me back and said, ‘We think we lost him.’”
Rabies is 100% fatal for horses and, as a zoonotic disease, is also a risk to horse owners and their families.
“The hardest thing for me was dealing with the mother after the horse succumbed to rabies,” Hildreth said. “She had three sons who had all been exposed to rabies. She was very scared for her sons’ health.”
Annual vaccination is the only way to protect horses from rabies. Rabies is one of five core equine diseases against which the American Association of Equine Practitioners recommends all horses should be vaccinated annually. The additional core equine diseases include West Nile virus, tetanus, and Eastern and Western equine encephalomyelitis. Read more…