Rabies--Vaccination is the only defense
Think your horse isn't at risk of contracting rabies? Think again. As of the end of August 2011, multiple cases of equine rabies had been confirmed in the United States this year and a Georgia horse remained in a six-month quarantine after a rabid raccoon was found in its stall.
In addition to these recent equine cases, thousands of cases of rabies in non-domestic animals are reported annually. In 2010, there were 6,154 reported cases of rabies in animals and two human cases. Wild animals accounted for 92 percent of those cases, with domestic animals representing the other 8 percent.
"Because the incidence of rabies in horses is relatively rare, some owners may be complacent about keeping up-to-date with rabies vaccinations," says April Knudson, DVM, Equine Specialist for Merial's Large Animal Veterinary Services. "However, many horses live in areas where they might be exposed to wildlife, so there is a risk that they may be bitten by an infected animal."
Always fatal in horses, rabies is a viral disease that affects the nervous system. Horses contract the disease from the saliva of an infected animal. After the initial exposure, clinical signs can take up to three months to appear and include fear, aggression, depression, lameness, neurological deficits and general dullness.¬ A low-grade fever can also accompany those clinical signs.
"It is heartbreaking to see a horse suffering from rabies, especially since there are relatively low-cost vaccines widely available," says Dr. Knudson. "Rabies carries with it a death sentence, which is unnecessary because we can help prevent it with proper vaccination."
Even if there is not a report of rabies in a horse owner's community at any given time, Dr. Knudson suggests horse owners remain vigilant and help protect their horses by vaccinating with a product like Merial's IMRAB rabies vaccine.
Besides threatening the lives of horses, rabies is also considered to be a public health threat. Because of the possibility of transmission via saliva, humans are at risk of contracting the disease. In a recent equine case in Texas, the veterinary staff handling the infected horse had to undergo the painful series of shots following their exposure to the horse.
While the number of rabies cases has diminished over the years in the United States, the disease remains a serious public health threat worldwide. According to the Alliance for Rabies Control, 55,000 people worldwide die from rabies annually. Of those bitten by suspect animals, 40 percent are under the age of 15. On Sept. 28, the Alliance will try to bring awareness to the issue worldwide with the annual World Rabies Day initiative.
U.S. horse owners can remain proactive in helping protect their horses by vaccinating. They can also take advantage of Merial's new free "Outbreak Alert" program, which will tell them about the presence of confirmed equine disease in their area. Those who sign up at www.outbreak-alert.com will receive text and/or¬ e-mail notification of disease threats within their area. The site also includes maps showing the presence of disease throughout the country and general information about common equine diseases.