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Preventive Health Care for Horses

Disease Control Strategies
Control of disease in your horse requires a combination of good management, proper vaccination schemes, and a good working relationship with your veterinarian. There are three factors that impact the development of a preventative health care program: horse factors, location factors, and owner factors.

  1. Horse factors: number/population density, age, type and use of horses, and value of horses.
  2. Location factors: facilities, climate, endemic disease, and population fluxes.
  3. Owner factors: cost of prevention vs. cost of disease, likelihood of disease, potential zoonoses (spread of disease from animals to humans), and management style.  

Management factors that may influence disease on your farm include: nutrition, isolation of new arrivals (very important). Stable and pasture design, stable and pasture hygiene, pasture management, routine screening tests for some diseases.

The vaccination schedule that you choose for your horses will depend on: age of horse(s), efficacy of available vaccines, likelihood of disease exposure and cost of vaccine vs. cost of disease. Timely vaccination of your horse is important for proper health and performance. In North Carolina, horses should be vaccinated for the following:
Tetanus is a bacteria that lives in the soil. Horses should be vaccinated every year with tetanus toxoid vaccine. Do not administer tetanus antitoxin to your horse without first consulting your veterinarian. This vaccine may cause an allergic reaction of the horse’s liver which can be fatal.
Influenza (Flu) is a virus that can cause fever, cough and nasal discharge. It is easily transmitted to other horses. Horses at risk (especially young horses) should be vaccinated twice a year.
Encephalomyelitis (EEE/WEE/VEE) is a neurological disease (sleeping sickness) that can cause death and in transmitted by mosquitoes. The warm moist climate of North Carolina makes an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes. We recommend vaccination at least twice a year.
West Nile Virus vaccination should be given to horses twice yearly. West Nile Virus a viral disease that can cause encephalitis or meningitis, infection of the brain and the spinal cord or their protective covering. It is spread via mosquitoes.
Rhinopneumonitis (Rhino) is caused by a herpes virus that can cause fever, cough, and nasal discharge. This virus may also cause abortion in pregnant mares, or may cause neurological disease. Rhinopneumonitis is a contagious organism that can spread through barns via nose-to-nose contact between horses, or on the hands of people handling the horses. Vaccination of performance horses should be at least twice a year.
Equine Viral Abortion (Rhino) is also caused by a herpes virus and infection may result in abortion. Pregnant mares should be vaccinated at the beginning of the 5, 7, and 9 months of pregnancy.
Rabies is a virus that can affect humans, horses, dogs and cats – actually, any mammal. With the increasing number of rabies cases in North Carolina, we recommend vaccination annually to protect your horse from this fatal disease. This vaccine must be administered by a veterinarian or a state-approved veterinary technician.
Potomac Horse Fever(PHF) is a viral disease that can cause colic, diarrhea, fever and other non-specific signs of illness. PHF has not been reported in our area, but if your horse travels in endemic areas, vaccination is warranted. The horse should receive its first shot and a booster 30 days later. Annual revaccination is recommended.
Strangles is caused by the organism Streptococcus equi and can cause swollen lymph nodes that may abscess. Rarely, the guttural pouches of the horse may become infected, or the organism may cause abscesses in the thoracic or abdominal cavity. Some stables may require strangles vaccination for horses coming onto the property. The intramuscular vaccine may cause abscesses and soreness at the injection site. The absolute efficacy of the vaccine is unclear. An intranasal vaccine is available, but the efficacy (usefulness) of this vaccine is unproven. Additionally, vaccination of some horses may result in swollen lymph nodes, and possible lymph node abscessation.  

Suggested vaccine schedule:  
We suggest that the “spring” vaccines be performed between February and April, and the “fall” vaccinations be performed between August and October. Broodmares should follow a regular vaccination program, but be sure to always use only killed vaccine products. Add Pneumabort K or other killed herpes product that is approved for use in pregnant mares at the 5, 7, and 9 months of gestation. Administer tetanus, sleeping sickness, West Nile, and intramuscular influenza vaccines 30 days prior to foaling. Botulism, strangles, rotavirus and Potomac horse fever vaccinations are based on your horse’s needs. Please consult with us about these vaccines.  

Early Disease Recognition is very important! Owners and trainers should observe all horses daily for changes in attitude, appetite, or behavior. Monitor feed and water intake, and fecal production at least once a day. You should try to maintain regular communication with a veterinarian familiar with your horses. If you think a horse may be sick, isolate it immediately if you think you may have an infectious problem. A major flaw in most horse operations is failure to isolate or quarantine horses prior to integration into the herd. Newcomers to your property should be isolated for at least 2 weeks, and monitored for signs of disease, especially cough, nasal discharge and swollen lymph nodes.  

Equine Infectious Anemia (EIA) is caused by a retrovirus and once infected, the horse remains infected for life. The clinical signs are fever, weight loss, ventral edema, moderate anemia, depression, and thrombocytopenia (low platelet count). Or there can be no clinical signs of the disease. Horses with no clinical signs can serve as a source of infection for other horses near them. There is no vaccine or treatment for this disease. The virus is spread form horse to horse by biting horseflies and deerflies, but not mosquitoes. Using the same needle on multiple horses could also spread the virus.
Coggins testing: Each horse should be tested annually for EIA. The test for this extremely contagious disease is called the “Coggins” test. In NC, positive horses must be quarantined, euthanized, or moved to a recognized research facility. If a horse tests positive, the laboratory immediately notifies the state veterinarian. The state veterinarian will repeat the Coggins test to verify the results. Horses that test positive for EIA must be permanently identified by a brand on the left side of the neck. A negative test is required for any horse to cross state lines.
Prevention of EIA:
  • Require a negative EIA test as part of every prepurchase exam
  • Require all new horses on a farm to have an EIA test within 12 months of their arrival.
  • Test all horses on the farm at least yearly.
  • Encourage rigorous fly control; do not pile manure near areas where horses gather.
  • Thoroughly disinfect any items contacting equine blood prior to use on another horse.
  • Never use the same needle for multiple injections on different horses.  

Equine Dentistry
            Horses of all ages are subject to tooth abnormalities that can adversely affect their ability to chew and maintain body weight. In addition, tooth problems may lead to infections or may cause soreness resulting in performance problems. In contrast to humans, the teeth of horses grow continuously during their lives. The horse chews its food by grinding from side to side. Excessive tooth growth is thus limited by slow, continuous grinding away by the opposing tooth, Many horse owners think that a horse does not need dental care or dental examinations until it is old or having problems. Not true! Annual examinations during routine vaccination visits by your veterinarian allow for early detection of dental problems. Older horses may benefit from twice-a-year examinations. These regular examinations allow for correction of tooth problems before the horse experiences pain or has trouble maintaining its weight.
Problems to watch out for include:
  • Sharp edges on the outside edge of the upper molars and premolars and the inside edge of the lower molars and premolars. These sharp edges are caused by the side-to-side grinding of feed during chewing. Over time, these sharp edges may cut into the cheek or tongue, making it painful for the horse to chew. In less severe cases, the horse may experience discomfort when ridden, resulting in head-shaking or problems with the bit.
  • Hooks on the premolars and molars as a result of overbite or underbite. When the teeth do not meet properly (malocclusion), the teeth are not worn down uniformly by an opposing tooth. This results in a hook, most commonly in the first upper cheek tooth (premolar 2). A hook on this tooth may cause problems with the bit. More importantly, the presence of a hook on the first upper cheek tooth signals a potential problem of the last lower cheek tooth. A hook on this last tooth may cause the horse considerable pain leading to serious weight problems and even colic.
  • Wave mouth is an abnormality where the teeth have an undulating pattern from front to back. In this condition, some teeth may be too long relative to the adjacent teeth, and other teeth may be worn down to the gum line.
  • Step mouth is when the front cheek teeth are longer than the back cheek teeth. Both wave mouth and step mouth may interfere with chewing.
  • Broken or split teeth – if broken off below the gum line, do not cause a problem. Care must be taken that the opposing tooth does not become overgrown.
  • Infected tooth roots may cause the horse pain and may result in extension of infection into the maxillary sinus. The signs of an infected tooth root and maxillary sinusitis include fetid-smelling nasal discharge and foul breath, and possibly swelling over the side of the face. This problem can be diagnosed by radiography and can be treated by removal of the tooth. Probably the most serious problem associated with tooth problems in horses is an inability to maintain body weight. As the horse ages, its digestive efficiency diminishes. This problem is compounded if the horse is not able to chew the feed effectively. A sign that your horse is having problems with teeth is excessive dropping of hay and grain when eating, a problem known as quidding.
Horse owners often spend large amounts of money on feed and supplements for horses that have undiagnosed tooth problems. With advances in veterinary care, especially in parasite control, horses are living longer. In extreme cases, older horses may actually grind their teeth down to the gum line. Horses with severe dental problems may require special diets to maintain their body weight. This may include feeding all-in-one pelleted feed that can be softened, if necessary, by soaking.            

Routine dental care is essential to the health of the horses. Regular teeth filing, known as floating, is tolerated well by most horses and can be done with minimal restraint. In some cases, it may be necessary to sedate the horse to facilitate floating. More severe cases, especially those involving hooks on the back teeth, may require the horse to be deeply sedated or possibly anesthetized.            

In summary, horses with problems gaining weight and horses with performance problems such as head-shaking or discomfort with the bit, benefit from dental examination by your veterinarian. It is much easier on the horse to have dental problems corrected before they become severe. All horses should have their teeth examined annually by a veterinarian, and older horses will benefit from twice-a-year examinations. And remember, dolook that gift horse in the mouth. A horse with severe dental problems may require extensive work by a veterinarian or costly feed supplementation to maintain body weight.

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