Comments from Dr. Rustebakke

Many of you know Dr. Dave as our official veterinarian for the Chief Joseph Trail Ride. He shared a note that went out to his local clients regarding the EHV situation.

Note to horse clients: Some thoughts on the EHV 1 outbreak: May 19, 2011

The rumor mill is in overdrive. This is a disease we have lived with for a long time, it has appeared right here in our valley many times. Every time I see a horse with neurologic signs, it potentially has EHV1 till proven otherwise. Every time I see an aborted fetus, or a horse with a snotty nose, it is potentially EHV1 till proven otherwise. Due to the difficulty and non specificity of laboratory diagnostics, and our inability or reluctance to spend the money to get the diagnostics done on an animal that has either already died, or is obviously going to get better with conservative treatment, diagnostic tests are not always done in the real world. This is not a new disease, and the nature of the Herpes Virus makes it highly likely that your horse already has it.

You have all heard the saying, “Herpes is forever”. That is true. As you know, cold sores and genital herpes do not go away in people, even with all the medical efforts by our human counterparts. Shingles is a latent herpes infection that can becomes active in anybody who has ever been infected with the herpes virus that causes chicken pox. EHV in horses acts the same, once a horse has been exposed, he has it forever.

It is difficult or impossible to find a horse that is not harboring the equine herpes virus. The horse’s immune system keeps it under control until it either becomes immuno suppressed from stress (such as what happens after traveling cross country in a horse trailer, commingling with a bunch of other horses in a strange facility, probably eating unfamiliar feeds, breathing dusty air, and being asked to perform incredible feats of athleticism), or overwhelmed from the sheer number of virus particles in the environment.

The reason that this case is on the national radar is not that it is EHV1. We’ve had it here before many times; it didn’t even make the local paper. The reason it is on the national radar now is that it was traced back to a high profile show, and has potentially spread all over the country. It has exposed the very best seed stock in the Quarter Horse industry directly, and other breeds indirectly. It is probably no more deadly than the cases we have seen before that have already killed lots of horses; although there is a possibility it may test out to be a more contagious strain.

I have been getting many phone calls and questions regarding what we should do as a local community, and as individual horse owners. This is my advice (subject to change at any time, of course, as nobody has all the answers)

First, don’t panic. We’ve already ridden this path many times, and it will blow over. The chances that your horse will get EHV1 and die are miniscule. He has already been living with it his entire life.

Second, stay away from public horse events till this blows over. I see no problem with riding with friends or even on public trails; make an effort to avoid close contact with horses you don’t know.

As far as I know, no states have issued directives as of yet to restrict your freedom to move horses as you choose. However if it gets worse, restrictions from the state could be instituted. The best way to keep the state from taking control is for people to control their horses contact with other horses voluntarily. The chances of you picking it up at a local horse gathering or event is miniscule, but when you multiply miniscule by thousands of events across the state and country it becomes obvious that if people don’t take precautions, the disease is likely to spread.

As many of you know, the Washington State Veterinarian is Dr. Leonard Eldridge, a longtime Lewiston, ID veterinarian; and one of his assistants is Dr. Ben Smith from Juliaetta, ID. The last thing they want to do is issue regulations that will impair your ability to use your horses as you see fit; but if we don’t stop this on our own they have the authority to shut down all horse transport in the state.

Third, don’t feed the rumor mill. Check out information before passing it on. Most of us local veterinarians try to stay on top of current information; we are generally a good source. However if you want to get to the root of the best information, the following link will take you to the web site of every official State Veterinarian’s Office in the country. If you hear that something strange is happening in Texas (or any other state) click on the state, and check it out for yourself. If you don’t find the information you need, give them a call; they are paid to answer questions, and I have found them to be extremely helpful.

Finally and most importantly, continue to use and enjoy your horses. There are many horse activities you can enjoy that do not involve congregating large numbers of horses you don’t know and owned by people you don’t know. Going to the mountains, or trail riding with friends, or having a roping event or barrel race with friends is no more dangerous from an animal health standpoint today than it was prior to this outbreak, as long as you know the horses have not recently been to a large public event, or exposed to horses who have.

Good Luck, and Happy Trails,

David A. Rustebakke, DVM

Categories: Equine health


  1. Lora Said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 3:20 am

    Very well said Dr. Rustebakke!

  2. Beth Said,

    May 27, 2011 @ 6:41 am

    Thanks Dr Dave!

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