All British horse racing meetings have been cancelled due to an outbreak of equine flu, to restrict the movement of horses and reduce spread of the virus. But what exactly is it? We explain more about equine flu and what you can do to protect your horse and prevent the spread.
What Is Equine Flu & How Is It Transmitted?
Equine flu is a respiratory virus spread between horses by both direct and airborne contact. This can make it difficult to control the spread of the virus.
It is not selective and can affect any horse, pony or donkey at any type of establishment.
Is Equine Flu Contagious?
Yes. It is very contagious as it can be spread not only by direct contact e.g. owners touching infected horses then other horses but through the air on respiratory droplets e.g. horses coughing or sneezing. The distances that it can travel are extensive and can be over 2km.
Some of the horses in the current outbreak have been vaccinated. Vaccination to equine flu does not make the horse 100% immune to catching it, however it can greatly reduce both the duration severity of the symptoms and how much that horse sheds the virus into the environment for others to pick it up. The more horses that are vaccinated the less likely the virus will be able to spread.
How Serious Is It If My Horse Gets Equine Flu?
It can be particularly serious in unvaccinated animals, or those that are young, stressed, elderly, or have chronic conditions that might affect their ability to fight infection. It’s rarely fatal but can cause long-term respiratory issues and poor performance.
The virus itself actually damages the lining of the respiratory tract, which makes the horse more susceptible to contracting secondary infections that can then cause more serious problems e.g. pneumonia.
It can take up to 100 days for that damage to resolve so it’s problematic for all horses but particularly in competition animals e.g. race horses or other types of competition animals that are out competing regularly as they will need significant time off to recuperate.
What Are The Symptoms Of Equine Flu?
The symptoms of equine flu include, (but are not limited to):
- A dry, harsh cough
- Feeling lethargic or depressed
- Loss of appetite
- Nasal discharge
If your horse has been vaccinated, it may not show any signs or milder symptoms, however they may still carry the virus and spread this to other horses.
What Should I Do If I Think My Horse Has Equine Flu?
If you suspect that your horse, donkey or pony has equine flu, isolate the horse immediately and contact your vet.
If your horse is on a yard, make sure there are protocols in place in case one of the horses is diagnosed with flu:
- Isolate infected horses
- Stop movements in and out of your yard
- Monitor all horses (whether they are showing signs of flu or not)
What Options Are Available If My Horse Gets Equine Flu?
Most horses with flu will feel unwell and be off colour, much like you if you have the flu. Some will need anti inflammatory treatment.
Antibiotics are not effective against flu as it is a virus, however some horses develop secondary infections and there may be individual cases were antibiotics are needed.
Having the horse isolated in a well ventilated area being fed soaked hay or haylage is also appropriate in most cases.
Please discuss your individual horses needs with your vet. Horses suspected of having flu should be swabbed early in the first few days when it is most likely to be shedding the virus.
How Can I Protect My Horse From Equine Flu?
There are a number of things that you can do to reduce the risk of your horse getting flu, or getting it at your yard:
Make sure that your horse is vaccinated against flu. Horses vaccinated against flu have reduced chances of catching the virus.
As mentioned, even vaccinated horses aren’t 100% immune to getting the virus BUT the vaccine will greatly reduce the severity of the disease that the horse contracts, how long it has it for and how contagious it is to other equines.
Current advice from BEF, BEVA and the AHT is to bring the vaccine interval from 1 year down to six months at this time of heightened risk.
2. Isolation Facilities & Quarantining New Arrivals
Ensure you have isolation facilities on your yard should a horse contract the virus and need a separate stable. This should be 25m from any other horses and share no airspace. Ensure that separate equipment and handlers are used when dealing with horses in isolation. Isolation areas should also be clearly signposted (e.g. with tape and markers).
Similarly, new horses arriving on your yard may bring an increased chance of flu. Make sure any new horses being brought in are vaccinated for flu and other infectious diseases. It is also a good idea to quarantine these horses in a separate stable for the first few weeks before mixing them with other horses.
3. Biosecurity & Hygiene
Make sure your hands are clean when dealing with each horse, and that each horse has its own designated equipment so as not to spread infection from horse to horse.
When away from your yard it’s also a good idea to take your own equipment with you. Mixing with other horses puts your equine at higher risk of contracting flu, so avoid communal areas at events and contact with other horses. Disinfecting your trailer and equipment when you get back is also recommended.
4. Traveling to shows
At present all racing is suspended. Other competitions are still potentially running however this is a very fluid situation. The more horses mix and are in contact with horses from other premises the greater the chance of infection spread. People should evaluate the risk before deciding to attend a competition.
Keep up to date with the latest advice and developments on the current influenza outbreak: https://www.aht.org.uk/disease-surveillance/equiflunet