Horse Owners Are Battling A Deadly Virus

Amid our own COVID-19 pandemic, the horse world is fighting to stop the spread of a deadly and highly contagious virus affecting their equines.

On March 28, a veterinarian in Duval County, FL reported a horse showing signs of neurologic equine herpesvirus-1, or EHV-1. Two days later, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services officials confirmed that twenty horses had been exposed to two horses which had tested positive for the equine virus.

EHV-1, which horses are vaccinated against, typically presents with a fever and occasionally signs of respiratory infection. The infection causes equine herpesvirus myeloencephalitis, or EHM, which results in neurological symptoms such as lack of coordination, inability to stand up, urinary issues, weakness of the limbs, and other problems. Young horses suffer from respiratory issues, and pregnant mares lose their fetus.

The devastating virus is spread similarly to COVID-19, via close contact with infectious individuals. And again, like COVID-19, individuals can be carriers who spread the virus without presenting symptoms themselves.

Although there is not currently a link between existing cases between two counties dealing with cases in Florida, just two weeks ago Science Magazine reported that Europe is experiencing “what officials already call the most serious EHV-1 outbreak in Europe in decades.”

The European outbreak is linked to an international jumping competition that took place in Spain, resulting in the exposure to nearly 700 horses. Because these horses had already returned home, it’s difficult to predict how many horses have subsequently been exposed. At the time of Science’s report, at least 17 horses had died from EHV-1.

The strain affecting horses in this particular outbreak has been more nasty than usual, according to Science. One veterinarian at a local equine veterinary hospital overwhelmed with horses estimated that 40 percent of the equines have shown signs of neurological damage, a significant increase from the average 15 percent.

“Exhausted medics were treating up to 20 animals simultaneously, with many horses hoisted in slings, literally hanging between life and death,” reports Science, and quoted the veterinarian: “I think I understand more what it’s been like for [COVID-19] doctors.”

Researchers hope to prevent future outbreaks by improving the current EHV-1 vaccine, which is not nearly effective enough against the virus and requires routine booster shots.

Meanwhile, international equestrian competitions are forced to shut down not just from COVID-19, but now to also prevent the spread of the equine virus. The International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI) has cancelled the 2021 World Cup due to EHV-1. In 2020, the World Cup was cancelled due to COVID-19.

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, veterinarians and researchers are working right alongside doctors and scientists to contain, treat, and prevent future outbreaks of EHV-1.

“Nobody wants to see an outbreak like this ever again,” said FEI Secretary General Sabrina Ibáñez. “There will be a comprehensive and fully transparent investigation into every aspect of this outbreak and the way it has been handled, and the findings will be published so that, together with our community, we can all learn from this.”

Sarah Olson Michel is a science writer and an equestrian based in Oregon, USA.

Nonfiction writer wrangling words and horses in the Pacific Northwest | she/they

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store