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E.Coli and other fatal infections in horses
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PIntado1
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 Posted: Fri Oct 24th, 2014 08:48 am
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I’m curious about major out-of-control infections in horses, specifically lymphangitis (which is fungal) and fatal bacterial gut infections such as e.coli and salmonella, diseases that didn’t seem to exist when I was a teenager. A few winters ago there was an unrelated series of such infections among horses that I knew (different barns, amateur owners), and taken together they add up to the largest single cause of death among horses in my world. So these infections seem to me new, common, and serious.

I should add that we live in a wet, temperate part of the world, in relatively cramped suburbs or exurbs: not ideal horse country, but a great environment for bacteria and fungi. Maybe these diseases aren’t a problem in warm, dry ranch country.

I’m asking because in each case, the message the owners took away from their various vets was fatalistic: “these things come up out of nowhere, there was nothing you could have done about it, it’s random, it’s not your fault.” I know that some of our local vets will be gentle on a grieving, guilt-ridden amateur/recreational owner, and it is true enough that nothing could be done at the point the vets were called in and the horses put down. But for a by-stander it isn’t very re-assuring as it suggests there is no way of heading off these infections earlier.

Some things I’m wondering: Are these diseases on the rise, or were gut infections just diagnosed as fatal colic in the days before necropsies and lab tests? Are there best practices for preventing, or for early diagnosis and treatment (I realize lymphangitis isn’t curable)? And is the onset really sudden and random?

About lymphangitis: In the case I know best, the horse first exhibited full-blown lymphangitis symptoms while the owner was away for the weekend, and the weekend care-taker still feels she caused it by letting him get a scratch in turn-out. But could a full-blown case of ulcerating lymphangitis (whole inside of the back leg raw and oozing) really blow up in 12 hours, from a small scratch? This is what I was given to understand the vet said, but I’m not in a position to query either the owner or vet. From what I’ve read on-line, the incubation time is a few weeks, so I’m wondering if in reality the owner missed it brewing, and was trying to shift blame. On the other hand, there are human “super-bugs” around like multiply-resistant staphococous (“flesh eating disease”) that do move very fast. The horse was put down after six months of struggling and never healing: a really nasty disease.

I’ve always hoped that prompt care for small cuts would ward off any larger infections, so I’m a little scared to think that lymphangitis could blow up before you even saw the cut. Is there a “super-bug” version of lymphangitis out there?

About gut infections: this killed four horses at different barns, a bit older, averaging 20, but all in regular work. They were all a little unwell for a while, but nothing that alarmed their owners. Then each suddenly came down with what appeared to be colic, but turned out to be a massive bacterial infection, either e.coli or salmonella, and was put down when its vital signs started to fail. This happened fast, in one case riding OK at night, euthanized before noon the next day. All the owners were told “these things come out of nowhere and progress fast.” But would a horse in fact really be fighting this kind of infection for a while before collapsing?

In that case, would earlier diagnosis and treatment help? And what might be preventative? Is e.coli opportunistic, getting out of control when other “good” gut bacteria are depleted, for instance by chronic diarrhea? Or would the diarrhea be a symptom of a growing infection? Or would horses catch this from dirty feed or water, or a dirty stall (like human food poisoning)? Stabled horses are exposed to concentrated amounts of e.coli from the environment, yet rarely get sick. So what would cause a fatal overgrowth of the bacteria?

I’m resistant to the “comes out of nowhere” explanation because it makes me feel a bit powerless as a horse owner! I’ve always hoped that keeping stalls, water and feed clean; finding and spraying minor wounds promptly; and not ignoring long-term poor health or diarrhea; would be a big help in heading off health complications. While the dead horses’ owners were all involved and caring, I suspect they may not have all totally alert on these point. But they were no sloppier than many owners whose horses are perfectly fine.

So I was wondering what the best advice out there might be on prevention, early diagnosis, treatment?

DrDeb
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 Posted: Wed Nov 5th, 2014 08:45 am
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Pintado, it sounds a little bit to me like you've been dosing a little too heavily on Fox News for your vet-med information.

There are no "out of control" infections in horses; there is no epidemic that I am aware of.

E. coli infections in horses come under the heading of "enteritis" or "gastric enteritis". They are sometimes difficult to differentiate from salmonella or girardia, which create much the same symptomatology, which does indeed look like (and technically is actually) a type of colic.

Untreated -- or recognized too late -- any one of these infections can take a runaway course, which results in erosion and thinning of the wall of the gut tube, eventuating in perforations by which the contents of the gut tube can then squish out into the abdominal cavity. This is then very quickly fatal.

So yes, early diagnosis might have saved lives, but even this is not a guarantee.

As to the "coming out of nowhere" explanation -- that is correct. The horse gets this type of infection by ingesting something with enough of the bacteria on it that, once those bacteria reach the part of the intestinal system that is behind the stomach, there are enough of them alive that they can multiply and achieve large numbers. This overwhelms the "good" bacteria that normally inhabit the gut and makes the horse sick.

So where did these horses pick up the bacteria? From the soil or other horses' manure, or from cow or dog manure, mouse or rat poop, or from human excrement -- if it was really E. coli. If it was salmonella, then your most likely sources would be spoiled hay, spoiled grain, spoiled pellet feed, dirty feed buckets, dirty water tank -- or, again, soil or manure. If it was girardia, the focus would be on the water supply itself, i.e. has the farm's well been tested and/or have the people at the house been told that there is girardia in the water.

Your veterinarian is correct in telling you that, in certain years -- for reasons that are not fully understood -- we get "blooms" in the soil of certain bacteria. We had the exact same scenario this year at our farm in California, with a few colics but no deaths thankfully. The same in California applies to the organism that causes "pigeon fever" -- some years a lot of horses get it. And ditto strangles -- the outbreaks run in cycles. This is no different at all from what goes on in nature; biologists have noticed for years and documented that lemmings, rabbits, pocket gophers, opossums, skunks, raccoons, deer, and many other animals seem to have years where there is little disease and populations thrive, while in other years there will be a disease that is prominent, causing the population numbers to fall.

Your own bottom line on this should be "cleanliness" -- they need to skip stalls and paddocks regularly, scrub buckets and water tanks, and check feed storage areas to make sure there are no rodent infestations, that rodent feces are not getting mixed into pellet or grain feed, that dogs or opossums are not defecating where horses could pick it up, and so forth. This just comes under the heading of "good farm management", and would be normal practice at any quality barn or stable. -- Dr. Deb

 

Pintado1
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 Posted: Fri Nov 21st, 2014 09:04 am
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Thank you! It's good to know that overall hygiene and stable management is a first line of defense, since this is what I suspected but have not heard anyone talking about. I'm at a large self-board barn, where everyone has their own little run-out paddock and own feed supply, so hygiene standards are very much up to the individual owner. Btw, by out of control, I didn't mean so much that there was an epidemic, but that in the individual horse they were systemic and fatal and got that way quickly. Anyhow, I will go home now and give my water bucket an extra scrub.

DrDeb
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 Posted: Fri Nov 21st, 2014 01:39 pm
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Pintado, really you are a prime candidate for a subscription to EQUUS Magazine. We have been preaching these things through that magazine for many years....it sounds to me from your interest as well as your concern that you'd truly enjoy reading every issue. To me, it is one of the best bargains out there, in terms of value for dollar given. -- Dr. Deb

Pintado1
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 Posted: Sat Nov 22nd, 2014 03:53 am
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Ummm ... I've been trying to read Equus for free through our university periodicals database, but it's a clumsy interface. Mostly I've just searched for your articles that have come out since the conformation book. I was joking about rushing home to scrub the water bucket; I do empty, scrub and re-fill every day :) and I think I'm on top of basic cleanliness. I think I am fussier this way than the friend whose horse died of e.coli (confirmed by necropsy), and I think she missed some early warning signals (explosive liquid diarrhea for several weeks, drop in appetite, lots of dirty old hay left in his stall) but its' not really something to say to her after the fact. But in all the discussion afterwards, stable management didn't seem to come up even as a hint from her vet, just this was an unfortunate random thing that happens to older horses not her fault at all, etc. So I do feel a little safer knowing it isn't totally random, and that it is another thing that proper stable management can help avoid.

DrDeb
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 Posted: Sat Nov 22nd, 2014 04:24 am
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Pintado, "explosive liquid diarrhea for several weeks" does not qualify as "bad" stable management; it qualifies as criminal. If you see this in any animal on your farm property, no matter whose animal it is, you not only should, you must:

* Inform the owner that you are going to call county health authorities, unless the owner takes immediate prompt action (call the vet immediately)

*Inform stable management that they are in violation of county health codes and animal welfare codes, and that unless they ALSO see to it that the owner calls the vet, THEY THE MANAGEMENT will be liable to citation and/or criminal punishment

* If no response or hostile response, then you follow through by calling county health authorities.

A horse in the condition you describe is not only a sick horse, but a potential danger to all other horses on the property (the same symptoms can indicate Potomac Fever or other rickettsial illness, for example, as well as E. coli).

As to trying to cheap out on Equus Magazine: I do understand being short on cash, especially if you're young and/or a college student. However, a paper subscription is only about $25 per year, and an online subscription is even less. You'll learn a lot by subscribing. -- Dr. Deb

Pintado1
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 Posted: Fri Nov 28th, 2014 06:28 am
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Thank you, I will keep this in mind when I see other cases of diarrhea. However, in our region, I don't think we have anything equivalent to a county health official in the American sense.

Your response has sent me on a little bout of internet research. There is no health authority at the city level; the regional health authority deals only with humans. The federal Ministry of Agriculture deals with food animals, plus testing race horses for drugs. Agriculture is a "shared jurisdiction" with the provinces, and our Provincial Ministry of Agriculture does have a regional office, however I need to phone them (they don't have a direct e-mail address for inquiries).

I also asked a couple of experienced local horse people, who said they didn't think there was any official who would have authority in this sort of case. The SPCA would intervene if it was a clear case of starvation, but wouldn't have the skills or resources to make a decision in a case of diarrhea. There are reportable diseases in our province, but I think that it would be vets reporting them after they diagnosed them. When there was a strangles outbreak last year (not a reportable disease), the quarantine advisories and the information sent out electronically came from private vet clinics, not the government.

The Ministries of Agriculture of course have much more oversight on poultry, cows, and pigs, which are going directly into human food. But I don't think there is much if any oversight on horses. I am curious, though, and will follow up on phoning the regional Ministry of Agriculture office.

One has of course much less authority in speaking out if there are no laws on the books to be broken, and no officials to enforce them in any case.


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