Most dog owners make sure their pet gets annual vaccination against rabies. In fact, most cities or counties require proof of vaccination as part of annual licensing of pets.
However, veterinarian and interim dean at Kansas State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, Bonnie R. Rush, says horses are nearly four times more likely to contract rabies than dogs, but across the U.S. the majority of horses are not vaccinated for rabies.
"Everybody is at risk for developing rabies. Your horse is at higher risk for being exposed probably at pasture, but being in a stall does not preclude exposure," Rush says. "The consequences of interacting with a horse that has rabies are significant."
Rush says that there are no horses that are exempt from contracting the disease. Miniature horses, draft horses, ponies and race horses alike can all contract rabies if they are exposed.
Horses can be exposed to rabies through the saliva of infected animals, commonly bats, raccoons, foxes and skunks.
"You may not realize that racoons or skunks or other wildlife are in your barn," Rush says. "You often don't see them in the daytime, but they are there and active at night."
Once inside the horse, the rabies virus travels up the nerves to the brain, where the disease progresses rapidly. The horse may show generalized signs of illness early on, but nothing neurological.
"It may just be refusal to eat; to not seem to feel well," Rush says. "During that time, family members, visitors and vets may be exposed."
Rabies is 100% fatal, and as a zoonotic disease, it presents grave risk to horse owners and their families. Two examples of public equine rabies cases are the 2008 Missouri State Fair and the 2006 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, which required the notification of more than 150,000 people for potential rabies exposure.
Rabies is the deadliest among the five core equine diseases, which also include Eastern equine encephalomyelitis, Western equine encephalomyelitis, tetanus and West Nile virus. Horses are continually exposed to wildlife and mosquitoes that transmit core equine diseases.
Whether kept in a barn or pasture, horse owners should not consider their horse spared from dangerous disease risks. As such, core disease vaccinations are recommended annually as part of overall equine wellness, according to the American Association of Equine Practitioners core vaccination guidelines.
"Any of the core diseases can be a death sentence for an exposed horse – and alarmingly, with exposure to an animal infected with rabies – family members, friends and any other persons exposed are also at risk of losing their lives to rabies disease, which is always fatal," says Kevin Hankins, senior technical services veterinarian with Zoetis. "A horse owner's best defense against these devastating diseases is through annual core disease vaccination."
The core disease vaccinations are universally effective against all five disease threats, Hankins says.
Talk with the veterinarian on your team today about your horse's core and risk-based vaccination needs. For more information, please visit coreequinediseases.com.