Equine veterinarians, state urge vaccinations despite lack of cases

By Katie Demeria

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is urging horse owners to have their horses vaccinated against several neurologic diseases, a sentiment echoed by local equine veterinarians.

Dr. Shalyn Crawford of Four Star Equine in New Market, said vaccination is one of the best ways to prevent these diseases from spreading.

“The horse owners in my practice are generally pretty good about vaccinating for these diseases,” Crawford said.

Horses should be vaccinated against the West Nile virus and eastern equine encephalitis in the early spring.

Virginia, Crawford added, does not see many cases of either disease due to its temperate climate. Horses contract them through mosquito bites, so horses in Florida, for example, are far more likely to come in contact with them, she said.

According to a news release from the state agency, many owners may feel comfortable skipping the vaccinations as cases of the diseases have decreased throughout the commonwealth. The release cautioned owners from becoming too content because of the low risk — cases are still seen in other nearby states.

Crawford pointed out that in previous years the diseases received more attention because more horses were becoming infected — so it is always smart to vaccinate each year regardless of the number of recent cases.

The release also urged owners to have their horses vaccinated against rabies, a yearly vaccine, as well.

“The number of rabies cases in horses has grown in the past few years,” the release stated. “In fact, recently rabies cases have exceeded cases of WNV or EEE.”

Crawford has not seen any cases of horses infected with rabies in her practice, she said. Dr. Tom Truban of Shenandoah Animal Hospital in Woodstock has, however.

“There’s probably a case of rabies once or twice a year,” Truban said, referring to cases he has seen in horses and other farm animals like cows or sheep.

Rabies, Crawford said, is especially dangerous because it can spread between species. Though humans can develop West Nile virus, they cannot catch it from horses — only from mosquitoes. Owners, however, can contract rabies from horses.

Owners frequently put bits in their horse’s mouth, Truban pointed out, and contact with saliva can result in rabies spreading.

“A rabies vaccine is very inexpensive, and you’re preventing a fatal disease,” Crawford said.

All three vaccines — for West Nile virus, eastern equine encephalitis and rabies — are considered core vaccines, Crawford said, meaning the diseases can only be treated with supportive care.

According to the release, West Nile virus kills 30 percent of those it infects, while eastern equine encephalitis kills 90 percent, and rabies 100 percent.

The three are neurologic diseases, which means they include symptoms like lethargy, unresponsiveness, stumbling or weakness, and in the case of rabies, mania.

While some vaccines can be self-administered, Crawford urged owners to consider having a veterinarian administer them, as they can sometimes be mishandled.

“The widespread recommendation is always to keep in touch with your veterinarian,” she said.

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com