Balancing Horse Movement and Disease Prevention

In today’s world of increasing national and international equine events and breeding opportunities, one of the big issues practitioners and governing bodies face is maintaining a balance between facilitating horse movement and mitigating disease risk. At the 2012 International Conference on Equine Infectious Disease, held Oct. 22-26 in Lexington, Ky., Peter Timoney, PhD, FRCVS, professor and former department chair and director of the University of Kentucky’s Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center, spoke on this topic with emphasis on international travel, but his takehomes are just as important and applicable to domestic horse transport.

“Some very wise people said to me many years ago, ‘Once you stop movement of horses, you’ve crippled an industry,’ and there’s nothing more true,” he began.

Timoney explained that maximizing protection from infectious disease spread while minimizing restrictions on horse movement are conflicting aims at their core. The health requirements that govern horse movement are intended primarily to minimize the risk of introducing diseases into an equine population. Due to significant trends that have developed in the past 30 to 40 years, however, risk of disease spread through horse movement has increased. Some of the trends Timoney identified include:

  • An exponential growth in the number of prestigious equestrian and racing events;
  • A significant increase in the number of stallions used for dual-hemisphere breeding; and
  • The acceptance and use of artificial insemination by the vast majority of breed registries.

Timoney proposed several steps he believes veterinarians and equine governing bodies should take to facilitate equine travel without increasing risk of disease spread:

1. Promote greater harmonization of laboratory testing. Lab testing for diseases must be consistent and reliable in order to be effective, and Timoney emphasized the importance of training personnel in approved diagnostic test procedures. He then cited one example of discrepant lab results in regards to contagious equine metritis (CEM).

“Between 1997 and 2012, 32 equids were confirmed carriers of Taylorella equigenitalis on post-entry (into the United States) quarantine and testing,” he explained. “Despite these being reportedly screened and tested, there is very strong circumstantial evidence that the source of CEM for the 2008-09 disease event was a stallion imported into the United States in 2000 that was not detected on post-entry testing.” This oversight cost the industry millions of dollars.

2. Actively pursue the development of appropriately validated laboratory tests for screening for the most regulated equine diseases that are more rapid and less costly.

3. Avoid shortcomings in veterinary certification reliability. “Certification of veterinary inspection is no guarantee of freedom from disease,” Timoney said. “We need to impress upon those whose responsibility it is to certify to ensure that their certification is reliable. It is not a matter of simply signing their name on the dotted line.”

4. Emphasize the importance of greater disease monitoring and surveillance and more timely exchange of information on disease occurrences. “The exchange of information on equine infectious diseases is crucial,” Timoney said. “We need accurate and up-to-date information on the occurrence of those diseases. There’s no use reporting something weeks or months later—it must be reported promptly or it loses its effectiveness.” This last step also requires more interaction between national animal health authorities and respective equine industries. Timoney said it is important to note that not all horses being shipped represent an equivalent risk of disease transfer.

For instance, he said, so-called equine frequent fliers—high-value sport horses, racehorses, or breeding stock that travel extensively and are maintained in a biosecurity-controlled environment—constitute a lower-risk category. Because of their value, these horses are already monitored daily to ensure they are healthy and sound and can perform to their full athletic potential. Their vaccination status for certain diseases is likely kept current as well, mitigating the risk of transferring those infections.

“These should be treated somewhat differently from average horses that ship,” Timoney said. “And this should be reflected in the testing requirements to which they are subjected.”

By working together, standardizing testing procedures, sharing information, and requiring different levels of restrictions depending on the type of horse, the industry might be able to better minimize disease risk in traveling horses without unnecessarily impeding these animals’ travel.

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.