Foal Loss Syndrome Update: Count Exceeds 500

Foal Loss Syndrome Update: Count Exceeds 500
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Dr. Doug Byars, head of the medicine unit at Hagyard- Davidson-McGee veterinary firm.
By Kimberly S. Graetz
The third week of May in Central Kentucky was marked by cautious optimism, with the slowing of early fetal and late-term gestation loss, growing frustration among industry professionals, and much-needed rain.

While there are unofficial reports of similar reproductive losses in Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, and Tennessee, their tallies are nothing of the magnitude that is being officially recognized in Kentucky. The Kentucky Livestock Disease Diagnostic Center has received more than 500 dead fetuses/foals this spring. Some veterinarians are predicting that the 2001 Kentucky foal crop could be reduced 5% to 10%, and the 2002 foal crop might drop 30% to 40% or more.

According to figures from The Jockey Club, the number of registered foals in the Kentucky foal crop in April averages 94.3 per day (based on 10,000 registered foals), and for May averages 57.2 per day. From April 28 through noon on May 20, there were 516 fetuses/foals taken to the diagnostic center. If 75% of the losses were late-term foals (387), that would mean a loss of nearly 17 foals a day. For April, that would be an 18% per-day loss of foals, and for May, a loss of 29.7% of the foals each day.

Add to that scenario other possible associated syndromes such as pericarditis (inflammation of the sac around the heart), seen in at least 40 horses of all ages (but also is slowing in incidence); hyphema (blood in the eye) in foals; a serious uveitis (eye problem) in foals and older horses; mouth ulcers; and laminitis. Mix in the fact that many farms in the region have been struck to some degree (from losses of zero to 100%), and that the actual cause is still not clear, and you have an industry under siege.

The warriors in the battle are diverse, from agronomists to researchers to veterinarians. The last-named group took a stand on May 18 and demanded more access to information, and a conduit through which they could provide facts to those in charge of finding out what is causing the problems. A group of veterinarians met with Dr. Peter Timoney, head of the Gluck Equine Research Center, on May 19 and formed an ex-officio communication committee for the exchange of information between researchers and veterinarians in the field.

"Our concern was that the Web site was becoming the end-all (for information)," said Dr. Doug Byars, head of the medicine unit at Hagyard-Davidson-McGee veterinary firm near Lexington. "There was no first-hand contact. The vet was put in the same receiving pile as the general public. We need updates on the science. We hope to have the tools in place today (May 21) where the veterinary community communicates with Gluck."

Byars said he and Dr. Bill Bernard, an internal medicine specialist with Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital near Lexington, will collect information from their two clinics, plus hospitals in Woodford County and Simsonville, Ky., and supply those "field" numbers to the Gluck Center on a weekly basis. The Gluck Center will establish information outlets for veterinarians to keep them apprised of research findings.

As part of the Gluck Center's attempt to make communications easier with the industry at large, a phone number has been established strictly to answer questions about mare reproductive loss syndrome for media, horse farm owners, managers, and others with comments or ideas. That number, which was activated May 21, is UKY-257-MARE (859-257-6273).

International Scare
The week of May 14, a slight international scare rippled through Kentucky in response to a false report that a ban had been placed on horses traveling from Kentucky to European countries.

Charles Frank, veterinary advisor to the United Kingdom Thoroughbred Breeders Association, said that in a meeting early that week, the European Federation of Thoroughbred Breeders issued a statement to advise members not to re-import horses to Europe until a cause of the current health problems in Kentucky was identified.

"We hope within days we will know what the problem is," Frank said. "This is no time to bring pregnant mares back anyway, but there are a number of yearlings waiting to come back. We suspect that by the end of the month this will be cleared up sufficiently" to remove the recommendations.

He said the recommendations are just that, and have no regulatory implications.

The European Federation of Thoroughbred Breeders has representatives from the five major Thoroughbred breeding countries in the European Union -- Great Britain, France, Ireland, Italy, and Germany -- plus representatives from other, smaller Thoroughbred breeding countries such as Spain and Norway.
"The last thing we want is a ban," Frank said.

How Can You Help?
Researchers are testing samples of various things to help determine the cause of the problems, which are being listed as possibly mycotoxins, fungal endophytes, phyto-estrogens (plant-derived estrogens), other compounds in pastures, and tent caterpillars (although cyanide was not found in samples).

Dr. Tom Tobin, a veterinary pharmacologist/toxicologist at the Gluck Center, is seeking samples of frozen colostrum from mares with losses and normal mares collected after April 17. Any frozen samples of blood or urine also would be helpful in the investigation. Also being sought by Tobin's laboratory are samples of first cutting Kentucky-raised hay made prior to May 5. Tobin's lab can be reached at 859-257-3739, or samples can be dropped off at the Gluck Center.

Dr. Kyle Newman of Venture Laboratories is helping the diagnostic center in testing samples of feed concentrate and manure samples from mares with losses or normal mares. The concentrate feeds are being tested to see why numerous pregnant mares did not suffer losses, not because it is thought the feed played a part in the losses. Those samples can be left at the diagnostic center. Sampling protocols can be found on the University of Kentucky's web site at http://www.uky.edu/Agriculture/VetScience/mrls/sampling.htm.

While the health problems are slowing, and everyone involved is breathing a collective sigh of relief, researchers and veterinarians remain busy seven days a week in their search for answers. There still are mares approaching the critical 40-60 day gestation period, and there are questions about later-term mares and the viability of their pregnancies through the next few weeks.

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