Equine herpes outbreak worries locals

An outbreak of a severe neurological strain of equine herpes linked to the NCHA Western National Championship in Ogden, Utah, has members of the B.C. working cow community worried about the safety of attending local shows.

The “hot” strain diagnosed in Ogden, which is now spreading across the western U.S., B.C. and Alberta, affects nerve cells and can cause permanent paralysis.

A recently confirmed case  in Armstrong has prompted local equine vets to advise their clients to keep their horses at home.

“There is a risk at the moment, but there is no reason to panic. This is not an epidemic, but more likely a sporadic local situation which requires contact with infected animals. The best advice I can give is to keep your horses at home, on pasture, in their normal environment,” said equine veterinarian John Twidale.

There is no vaccine which claims to be effective against this strain of herpes, he added, but strongly suggests worried horse owners talk to their veterinarians.

According to Twidale, there are different strains of the equine herpes virus.  One is a respiratory disease that can cause abortion in mares.  The severity of the symptoms of this strain, however, varies from horse to horse. Some horses who carry the virus show no symptoms. Twidale believes it is passed from horse to horse.  The first symptom is usually a spike in temperature.

“It’s very similar to polio myelitis in humans.  Some of the children who got juvenile polio got over it, some were paralyzed. It is an inflammation of the spinal cord and the brain.  It is difficult to treat. We treat it with anti-inflammatories,” said Twidale.

Reports from the U.S., however, suggests vets there are also treating animals with human anti-viral drugs and immune system boosters.

Working cow shows are being cancelled in both the U.S. and Canada, and one Abbotsford trainer has voluntarily quarantined his barn.

Thea Mackenzie, owner of Mackenzie Meadows, an equestrian centre in Pritchard popular with Lower Mainland western riders, decided to cancel a usually busy cutting show at the last minute.

“I hate the idea of making people afraid, but we have to be cautious. A lot of the participants had been to the Ogden show so obviously they had been exposed.  I have 30 horses of my own and young babies,” said Thea.

Aldergrove horsewoman Leslie Wallace, a retired lawyer who owns over 20 horses, many of them valuable working cow horses, has quarantined her farm to minimize risk to her horses.  She is especially worried about a horse in Arizona for training boarded at a quarantined barn.

“My two-year-old is quarantined in Arizona.  The trainer won’t work with him because stress can make a horse more vulnerable to this disease.  I can’t bring him home, of course. It’s a huge mess,” Wallace said.

As far as she knows, U.S. authorities are allowing horses across the border without restriction, at least at the moment.

Although this strain of equine herpes is not a reportable disease in Canada, Leslie is impressed with how many trainers, stables and show organizers are voluntarily imposing quarantines on their facilities and cancelling major shows.

“This is costing the horse industry a fortune.  I am so proud to be a horse person.  I have never seen horse people co-operate like this with one another.  Despite great financial losses, they are all doing the right thing, voluntarily, for the health of the horses,” said Leslie.

For updates on the neurological strain of the Equine Herpes virus, go to the website of the College of Veterinarians of British Columbia

Anne Patterson is a Langley writer and horse owner. Contact her at

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