What If My Horse Has Equine Influenza?

Equine influenza is a highly contagious flu-like virus that spreads quickly among horses. The good news is that it is rarely fatal in healthy horses. Zebras, donkeys and debilitated horses are not as lucky and may succumb to the disease. There are two types of the virus: Orthomyxovirus A/Equi-1 and Orthomyxovirus A/Equi-2. The latter has caused epidemics in equine populations and has become endemic in some countries.

The disease varies in severity depending on the overall condition of the horse. Factors such as age and health determine how severe the infection will be. Most horses recover over a period of a few days. The first sign of equine influenza is an elevated temperature, this rise is usually in the range of 38C (101F) to 41 C (106F). 37C to 38C is the normal range of temperature for horses. The horse will seem lethargic and less alert.

The next symptom is usually a dry hacking cough which becomes moist over a period of a few days. Nasal discharge will be apparent and the horse may experience loss of appetite, in fact equine influenza symptoms closely resemble human flu symptoms. To confirm the diagnosis and to rule out other more serious respiratory conditions such as viral arteritis and rhinopneumonitis, the vet will take a nasal swab and run some blood tests.

Unless there are complications, supportive care and rest is all that is needed for recovery. For each day of fever, the horse must be rested for a week, the minimum rest period being three weeks. NSAIDs and antibiotics may be prescribed by the vet if the horse has a fever over 40C (104F) or if the fever persists for more than 3-4 days. If there is a risk of pneumonia or pus in the nasal discharge, the vet will recommend the use of antibiotics and NSAIDs.

Due to the fact that there is no cure for the flu, prevention is necessary. Good husbandry and management practices along with a vaccination programme prevent the spread of the disease. The introduction of new horses to a stable or barn should entail a two week isolation period to avoid the spread of the virus. The virus is transmitted easily between horses through the inhalation of respiratory secretions and an infected horse can infect others by simply coughing. As with all viruses equine influenza is spread through the air. Nasal and intramuscular vaccinations help prevent infection in healthy horses your veterinarian should be able to advise you on which to use depending on your location and your horse’s environment and overall health.

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