Michigan horse health concerns after equine herpes virus kills one

Posted at 6:33 PM, Mar 23, 2015
and last updated 2015-03-23 18:38:34-04

MICHIGAN -- Horse owners who are getting ready to hit the road for the spring show season are also facing a serious health concern. Over the weekend, veterinarians at Michigan State University had to euthanize a horse infected with equine herpes virus, or EHV-1.

This is Michigan's first case of the virus in 2015, making it the sixth state to have a horse with the virus die this year.

Almost all horses have been infected with EHV-1 by the time they are two. In most cases, the virus is dormant, but travel and stress can bring out the disease into an active, aggressive state.

"It's an airborne," explained Nutritionist Dr. Ginger Southall, "not through bodily fluids, so just like it can be transported from horse to horse, we have to be careful for ourselves, and certainly other animals, in that we keep our immune systems strong."

Foals usually contract the virus from their mothers and then become carriers. Horses that carry the virus show no signs while the virus is dormant. Long distance travel, stress, and strenuous activity can activate the virus.

"If they are ever off their feet at all, that's usually your first sign that they don't quite feel that good, so we watch their water and feed intake," said Mary Luther-Eggleston, who trains performance horses at Northland Stables. "From there they show symptoms like people: they might cough, they might have a runny nose, they might have runny eyes."

After the initial symptoms, neurological signs appear as a result of damage to the blood vessels in the brain and spinal cord. Many horses fighting the virus will have trouble standing or be unable to get up.

Brushes, water buckets, feed, and human contact with infected horses can spread the virus in seconds. What many horse owners don't know is even the air around a horse shedding the virus can spread the potentially deadly disease.

Jennifer Holton with the Michigan Department of Agriculture told FOX 17 that they are investigating the case. Holton believes it is currently an isolated incident involving a barrel racing horse.