Equine flu recently hit the headlines when all racing in Britain was cancelled after three racehorses were found with the illness. What is equine flu and is there anything you can do to prevent your horse from catching it?
Equine influenza is caused by strains of the influenza virus. This affects the respiratory tracts of horses. It is s similar virus to that which affects people but it is not identical. This means that infections cannot be passed between owners and their animals.
When the virus is inhaled by a horse it impacts the lining of the airway. This becomes inflamed and the result is a sore throat and a cough. The damage caused by the virus leads to ulcerated airways which become less efficient at clearing mucus. Bacteria congregates in damaged areas and leads to further infections.
Unfortunately, equine flu is highly contagious. As the incubation period can be as long as five days, it isn’t always possible to identify an infected horse. This situation ensures that the flu virus can spread quickly. It can be caught from coughing animals or picked up from equipment which has been in contact with an infected horse. However, the virus doesn’t survive for very long outside the body.
If you suspect that your horse may have been infected, these are the symptoms to look out for:
• High temperature (39-41C) which lasts for one to three days
• A harsh, dry cough that can last for weeks
• Clear, watery nasal discharge (this could become thicker and turn yellow or green)
• Enlarged glands under the lower jaw
• Clear discharge from the horse’s eyes
• Redness around the eyes
• Unwillingness to eat
If you see these symptoms, contact your vet as soon as possible. Infection can be conformed by the clinical signs, checking antibodies or via a nasal swab. If your horse has been vaccinated, it could still display symptoms of the disease as different strains of the virus develop. However, a vaccinated horse will generally suffer from milder symptoms.
Treating equine flu
Horses with any respiratory infections should rest. They should not undertake any strenuous exercise until two weeks after the symptoms have gone. The stables of infected horses must be well-ventilated and exposure to dust must be kept to a minimum. You might need to change your horse’s bedding to reduce dust and feed haylage or hay which has been soaked. Your horse will still benefit from being turned out, as long as the weather is reasonable.
Antibiotics will have no effect on equine flu as it is a virus but these could be administered to address secondary bacterial infections. Your horse might benefit from medicines which aid breathing.
Preventing equine flu
This is a very difficult disease to keep under control, hence the action taken recently by the racing authorities. The transportation of horses can cause infections to spread much more quickly. Young horses at shows and race meetings are the most vulnerable to infection. Flu is best controlled by vaccination and vaccinations are compulsory for horses competing under BHA and FEI rules. 3 injections are administered across a period of up to 215 days. Booster shots are then required each year.