Equine Rabies: What One Texas Veterinarian Learned

Viral respiratory and neurologic diseases are the leading preventable causes of death in horses.One of the core equine diseases that has a 100% fatality rate is rabies.

“My first equine rabies case happened in a suburban barn – this family had a barn behind their house,” recalled Buff Hildreth, DVM, Richland, Texas. “Their 2-year-old gelding, who was new to the barn, started out not wanting to eat and being a little depressed.”

“I came out and looked at him in the morning, and I thought, is he colicky? So, I talked to them, and told them, if he doesn’t improve, then I need to come back. I came back that evening, and he had become averse to drinking and didn’t like to be touched.”

“I could remember Dr. Joe Joyce, who told me when I was a veterinary student, ‘If it looks like everything yet nothing, think rabies.’ So, that’s when it clicked,” said Hildreth.

Horses across the United States are exposed to rabies through infected wildlife, commonly bats, raccoons, foxes and skunks. No matter where a horse lives, or what a horse does, exposure to wildlife is a reality.

“Turns out this horse had not previously been vaccinated against rabies. So, I talked to the mother and referred the horse to Texas A&M,” said Hildreth. “Within the amount of time it took to hook up a trailer, the horse started having laryngeal spasms and becoming somewhat aggressive and hyperexcitable.”

“Unfortunately, they only made it about 30 miles and the horse began seizing violently. They called me back and said, ‘we think we lost him.’”

Rabies is 100% fatal for horses and, as it is a zoonotic disease, is also a risk to you and your family.

“The hardest thing for me was dealing with the mother after the horse succumbed to rabies. She had three sons who had all been exposed to rabies. She was very scared for her sons’ health,” said Hildreth.

Annual vaccination is the only way to protect horses from rabies. Rabies is one of five core equine diseases which all horses should be vaccinated annually against. The additional core equine diseases include: West Nile, tetanus, and Eastern and Western equine encephalomyelitis.

“Maybe you don’t hear about equine rabies often, but if you can vaccinate for something, why wouldn’t you? It’s zoonotic, you can get it, it’s terminal, the horses generally don’t look like they have rabies and they expose a bunch of people,” Hildreth said.

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