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Biosecurity vital in preventing equine herpes

The outbreak in the West has been diminishing because of such travel restrictions and biosecurity measures.

The equine herpes virus may have garnered national attention when it caused the recent cancellation of horse shows across the western United States, but a veterinarian with Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences says it's nothing new.

Jake Werner, attending veterinarian for agricultural animals and wildlife, said he isn't alarmed by the recent outbreak. The EHV-1 strain stemmed from horses attending the National Cutting Horse Association championships in Ogden, Utah, in early May.

"Horse owners, like owners of other livestock animals, always should be cautious and diligent in taking steps toward disease prevention," he said. "Diseases can flare up when we least expect them, but proper biosecurity measures can help decrease the occurrence and severity of illnesses."

The equine herpes virus takes on several forms that selectively target horses' reproductive, respiratory or neurological systems. The current outbreak, which resulted in the death of 12 horses and affected 77 others, has been identified as the neurological form.

Most horses have acquired a latent form of the disease by two years of age, said Werner. The virus is activated after a stressful period, such as strenuous exercise or transport to equine events. All forms are spread by respiratory secretions.

"People can be the vector for disease introduction, not just horses," Werner explained. "But following good animal-husbandry practices can keep your horse safer. Owners can continue taking their horses to shows, trail rides and other events -- just minimize the horses' contact with each other."

Werner has the following advice for horse owners:

-- Don't share trailers, tack and other equipment, such as brushes, buckets and feed pans, without washing them after each use.

-- Wash hands and boots and change clothes while traveling from farm to farm.

-- Do not allow nose-to-nose contact for horses returning from other farms, shows or other equestrian events.

-- House horses at least one stall away from each other. "The farther the better," Werner said. "And just like you shouldn't go to work when you're sick, don't move a sick horse."

The outbreak in the West has been diminishing because of such travel restrictions and biosecurity measures, according to Werner. "When animals move, disease can move, too," he said.

While a vaccine is available for the equine herpes virus, Werner warns that it is labeled only for the respiratory and reproductive forms. Owners should discuss the possibility of vaccination with a veterinarian.

"Be aware of and vigilant against pathogens," he said. "Proper biosecurity precautions are cheap insurance toward the health of your horse."

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