Handling Respiratory Disease Outbreaks at Boarding Stables

Editor's Note: This article is part of TheHorse.com's ongoing coverage of topics presented at the British Equine Veterinary Association's 51st annual Congress, held Sept. 12-15 in Birmingham, UK.

Respiratory disease outbreaks at facilities such as boarding barns present unique challenges for veterinarians, horse owners, and farm managers. Disease can spread quickly through a property’s equine population and beyond, and treating veterinarians must cater services to a diverse group of horse owners and their varying budgets.

To ease the process, Philip Ivens, MA, VetMB, CertEM(Int. Med.), Dipl. ECEIM, MRCVS, with Buckingham Equine Vets, in the UK, presented his suggestions for handling these outbreaks while at the British Equine Veterinary Association's 51st annual Congress, held Sept. 12-15 in Birmingham, UK.

Infectious diseases to watch for include equine influenza, equine herpesvirus 1 and 4, strangles, and equine rhinitis virus. Clinical signs such as fever, nasal discharge, coughing, depression, anorexia, conjunctivitis, and submandibular (under the jaw) lymph node enlargement are often overlooked and are only the tip of the iceberg.

Once a veterinarian identifies an outbreak, he or she must take steps to halt its spread. For instance, Ivens said area veterinary practices must put politics aside and communicate with each other "so that a unified response is seen between different veterinary surgeons/practices." Veterinarians should also alert and continue to update the proper state and national authorities and determine the travel history of each horse on the property.

During the outbreak's acute phase, the veterinarian must identify which animals to sample (using nasal and/or nasopharyngeal swabs or washes, blood samples, or environmental samples depending on the suspected disease) and, with the farm manager/owner's help, try to trace the source of the outbreak to identify chronic cases, latently infected animals, or asymptomatic carriers. Veterinarians can use bacterial and viral cultures, molecular tests (such as polymerase chain reaction), and serology (blood) tests to confirm diagnosis.

In controlling disease spread, Ivens suggested all parties adhere to strict biosecurity measures and continued disease surveillance. "Small measures make a big difference," he said, listing basics such as isolating areas of the farm, wearing protective gear, and using appropriate disinfectants.

He also recommended separating horses on the property into three groups: infected, in-contact, and not exposed.

"Be prepared to move animals between groups based on results of surveillance and testing," he added.

Once surveillance and testing results indicate the outbreak is past, owners and managers should take measures to prevent future events, such as improving biosecurity tactics, segregating incoming horses, and vaccinating regularly.

"For future prevention," said Ivens, "vaccination may be a useful measure but should always be seen as an adjunct to, not a substitute for, management measures and improvements."

In conclusion Ivens emphasized teamwork, transparent communication, and dissemination of information to all involved; knowing the current disease state both locally and nationally; and taking proper biosecurity measures to best handle and halt the outbreak.

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