When hearing the word rabies, most people think of vicious, salivating dogs, but unfortunately, rabies can affect horses. The virus that causes rabies is transmitted through infected saliva (usually via bites or broken skin) of infected animals. The wildlife that can carry the virus are most often raccoons, foxes, skunks and bats that live in the environment surrounding horses. Although rare, rabies is a real threat, and all horses should be vaccinated. Sadly, no treatment is available. Once signs appear the disease is 100% fatal in horses and humans.
Clinical signs of infected horses are agitation, salivation, abnormal movements or seizures, mild lameness and behavioral changes including self-mutilation. These signs can progress to coma and death over three to five days, so veterinary care should be sought.
Rabies can only be confirmed through examination of the brain after death or euthanasia, so any horse that dies without explanation or that showed neurological signs beforehand must be tested. If you’re concerned that a horse (or any animal) may be infected with rabies or is showing neurological signs, extreme care should be taken when handling the animal. If possible, the horse should be confined and isolated until a veterinarian is able to examine them.
Rabies is endemic in the local Florida wildlife, and the American Association of Equine Practitioners recommends that all horses should be vaccinated. Any vaccinated animal that has been exposed to rabies should be revaccinated as soon as possible and then closely monitored for clinical signs for 45 days afterward. If an unvaccinated animal has been exposed, either humane euthanasia should be performed or the animal must be isolated for six months while being closely observed for the appearance of any clinical signs. Sadly, the vaccine is ineffective in these unvaccinated animals following exposure to rabies. Rabies is zoonotic, so extreme caution must be taken when dealing with any neurologic horses or when handling wildlife.
BIO: Dr. Katie Hennessy graduated from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in 2008 with a degree in large animal health and equine medicine. She completed an advanced internship at The Equine Medical Center of Ocala and is currently the owner and practicing veterinarian at Polk Equine. Her expertise ranges from small and exotic creatures to large animals, specializing in equine medicine.