COVID-19 For Horse People – Applying What We Already Know.

The first step in dealing with any rapidly evolving situation like this is to take a deep breath and think logically. Let’s all do that. Breath IN. Breath OUT. Our world has rapidly changed in the last 5 days. It happened a little earlier for Asia and then Europe. I do not intend for this post to replace the recommendations made by the World Health Organization or Public Health. I am not a human doctor, an epidemiologist, or a virologist. I am a veterinarian. Herd health, disease outbreak management, and biosecurity – we are trained for this. One thing that I am more than willing to acknowledge is that this is all so much easier with animals! I do not envy my human doctor counterparts right now.

As someone who has worked in an equine hospital that suddenly didn’t have enough stalls for the number of horses that needed isolation, I am terrified at the idea of hospitals over-capacity. Quarantine or isolation units are carefully designed and laid out to reduce disease transmission and still allow for efficient work flow. The minute you have to step outside that to make pseudo-isolation it becomes immensely harder, more time-consuming, and ultimately less effective. This is why we must flatten the curve!

I am going to make a comparison between Covid-19 and Strangles but I need to outline the important differences:

  • CoVid19 is an unknown, novel VIRUS that nobody has been exposed to before and we don’t have predictable data for.
  • Strangles is a known, endemic BACTERIA that has been well studied and is quite predictable.

The similarities:

  • They are both highly contagious respiratory pathogens that can be transmitted through fomites (objects that carry the pathogen from one person to another).

However, horse people, if you have ever dealt with a strangles outbreak (or an influenza outbreak, or even a ringworm outbreak) then you know the basics of how to deal with this! If the entire horse population had strangles, what would you do? I’m guessing you’d be wrapping your horse up tight in a protective bubble.

If we think of countries as barns and the whole world as our horse community. We have one heck of an outbreak going on. Someone got the disease and then was allowed to go to a big show (think, The Royal!) and now it is spreading and it is hard to know who might be infected. So, what do we do with our horses? We take a deep breath and then we lock it down. Let’s look at the AAEP Strangles guidelines and reapply them to the current situation.

ANYTHING that touches an infected or suspect infected horse of any age or carries secretions or excretions … may have the potential to transfer pathogens to other horses.

  • Everything you touch may have the virus or may get the virus from you. Barn owners dealing with an outbreak quickly figure out the least amount of touching possible because they have to clean everything that gets touched. STOP TOUCHING EVERYTHING! For example – consider using your tap payment on credit cards instead of entering your pin on the touch pads.

Create 3 color‐coded groups, even if limited space dictates that horses must remain in the same paddock only separated by 2 layers of electric fence to avoid nose to nose contact.

  • The red group should include horses that have shown 1 or more clinical signs consistent with strangles.
    • These are our obviously infected people. This group is the easiest – they are in isolation in a hospital receiving care or isolated at home until doctors are sure they are no longer shedding virus and can re-enter the general population.
  • Horses in the amber group are those that have had direct or indirect contact with an infected horse in the red group and may be incubating the infection.
    • This is quite a bit trickier as the infection spreads across our globe. Who has been exposed? How can you be sure? This is where the uncertainty and panic comes in. Take another deep breath. Right now, these are the people returning from outside of Canada and being asked to respect a 14-day self-isolation and monitor for signs of disease.
    • Take your temperature daily. Listen to your body. Stay away from other people.
    • In our situation this is also anyone who shows signs of illness. People shedding the virus aren’t discharging huge amounts of obvious snot because this isn’t really like strangles at all. If you have signs of illness, you are in the amber group whether you’ve travelled or not. Stop touching things, stop visiting people.
  • The remaining horses, in the green group, are those which have had no known direct or indirect contact with affected animals.
    • Time to keep it that way. Reduce contact with RED and AMBER groups.
    • Think about your horse farms, the horses that get turned out together ONLY get turned out together. They do not alter their routines. They do NOT leave the farm until the risk of transmission has passed.
    • Stay within your family group. Don’t move around outside of that and endanger people that have compromised immune systems. Don’t mix social groups, it may be inconvenient but it isn’t worth risking lives.
    • We deal with disappointed people, cancelled shows, cancelled lessons, cancelled plans. It is unfortunate but it is better than letting the infection spiral out of control. This is the same situation, short term discomfort for long term benefits.
  • The rectal temperature of all horses in the green and amber groups should be measured twice daily and any febrile horse should be moved to the red group.
    • Constant monitoring, checking in, making daily decisions about which group each person should be in. A lot of this is self-monitoring so make good decisions! We aren’t horses and we don’t all have a strict barn manager making the calls on which group we belong to.

We have to be our own “barn managers” in this scenario. Keep up objective monitoring and open, honest dialogue with your family and community. Continue to re-evaluate what the level of risk is and see areas where you can reduce it. I often joke that horse people are the worst at being on stall rest themselves, we don’t like to sit still. But please, please, let’s help our communities understand how to limit the spread of infectious disease, because most of us have grown up with it and know it better than most.

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