Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008

Horse owners take steps to prevent illness

Animals near the river at higher risk for Potomac Horse Fever, experts say

E-mail this article \ Print this article

Potomac Horse Fever, a serious illness that can lead to lethargy, depression, diarrhea and even death among horses, is in the spotlight once again after news reports of the death of a horse due to the disease at a farm near Hagerstown.

However, horse lovers near the Potomac River, an area where the animals are at greater risk for ingesting the bacteria that causes the disease, say that it's nothing new — it's a problem they often confront this time of year.

"Since I've been running this farm – about 18 years – we've had a case every other year," said George Sengstack, manager of the Callithea Farm on River Road in Potomac, which houses about 65 horses.

The disease was first reported in the 1970s.

Horses that live on farms near bodies of fresh water such as the Potomac are at greater risk for developing the disease, because it's caused by bacteria often found in parasites that live in water-borne snails, according to Guy Hohenhaus, Maryland state veterinarian.

Though the disease is a nationwide problem, it was first recorded in areas near the Potomac in Montgomery and Loudoun counties, Hohenhaus said — which may be one reason that horse owners here have a heightened awareness of the disease. "The name constantly reminds us that it's in our backyard," Hohenhaus said.

Horses contract the disease by ingesting the bacteria, and may also contract it by ingesting insects that carry the bacteria.

They may be more at risk during hot summer months, when the snails and insects carrying it abound, Hohenhaus said.

"It's like clockwork — it's almost always in late July," Sengstack said.

Sengstack's farm is located about a half-mile from the Potomac River. This year, he said, there were two cases, both late last month. One horse died from salmonella bacteria – something that may have been a complication of Potomac Horse Fever, Sengstack said.

"They'll go off their feet, looking lethargic — or they'll stand away from the herd, not grazing," Sengstack said of some of the indicators that a horse may have come down with the disease.

Diarrhea and fever were two other tell-tale signs, he said.

With years of experience with the equine disease, Sengstack said he takes special steps this time of year to protect his horses. All of them are vaccinated in June to make sure they have boosted immunity in late July, he said.

Horses are also vaccinated at county farm parks, according to David Tobin, Equine Resources Coordinator for the Maryland National-Capital Park and Planning Commission.

However, horse lovers say that the best treatment is early detection. The disease can often be treated successfully with antibiotics if caught early, Tobin said.

"The vaccination is not foolproof — there's no guarantee that your horse won't ingest an infected insect," Tobin said.

Tobin recommended not allowing horses to graze in streams and inspecting drinking water daily for insects.

During summer months, equestrians — especially with horses near water — should be on the lookout for diarrhea, fever and lameness, Sengstack said. "You've just got to watch, watch, watch the horses," he said. "…You have to really try and be in touch with your herd and know your animals."