Equine BioSecurity: Healthy practices for any horse owner
Biosecurity is a fundamental process of helping keep our horses safe, as successful measures can help prevent the transition of infectious diseases. Whether you look after your horse yourself or pay a livery service to do so, it’s wise to practice safety measures throughout our interaction with our fellow equines.
In this article, Helen Whitelegg, Senior Campaigns Officer from Redwings Horse Sanctuary, explains the simple changes we can make in our horse care routines to help stamp out infectious diseases in equines, alongside shining the spotlight on strangles.
Did you know that almost half of our everyday actions are habits? From a morning cuppa to the weekly shop, habits are behaviours that we carry out without really having to think about them. The upside is that we don’t spend time and energy weighing up options to make a decision. The downside is that breaking bad habits or forming new ones isn’t always easy!
We tend to use a lot of habits in our horse care routines. They can help us, and our horses know what’s going to happen when, and make it less likely we’ll forget to do something important. Seasonal changes, new equines moving on and off the yard, or when you’ve been away for a competition can offer the perfect excuse to ask ourselves whether any of our existing habits could be updated or improved, or fresh habits introduced, to benefit our horses’ health. And when it comes to infectious diseases, even small actions can make a big difference in reducing risk, so why not adopt our five healthy habits to start you and/or your yard off with a better biosecurity system?
Five Healthy Biosecurity Habits
Covid-19 has made us all far more aware of what’s involved in preventing the spread of an infectious disease. There’s no doubt that we all had to form new habits very quickly in 2020, many of which did not come easily. But did you know that some of the hygiene habits we have adopted over the past year or so, also lend themselves to better biosecurity for horses? So, our five healthy horse habits may sound familiar!
- Wash your hands
- Check your horse’s temperature
- Share with care
- Practise social (equine) distancing
- Isolate as a precaution
As with the Covid-19 pandemic, relatively small, everyday behaviours like these which really can help to stop the transmission of disease are as much part of good biosecurity as bigger steps such as testing and vaccination.
- Wash your hands
Caring for horses is a very ‘hands-on’ activity, and bacteria or viruses can hitchhike on our skin if we touch an infected horse or contaminated surfaces. Regularly washing or disinfecting our hands is better for our horses’ health, as well as our own.
- Do you have handwashing facilities at your yard? Making hand sanitiser available at key points is also a good idea, especially for people arriving who may have come from another yard. And did you know that signs reminding people to wash their hands raised compliance in hospitals from 24% to 62%?
- Check your horse’s temperature
Fever is usually the body’s first response when it detects harmful pathogens. Infectious diseases have evolved to thrive at the normal body temperature of their host, so heating things up makes it harder for the bacteria or virus to survive and reproduce.
Horses commonly develop a fever before they become contagious to others. If we can spot a new infection as soon as fever spikes, and isolate the horse as a precaution, we have the best chance of containing a disease before it spreads.
A healthy horse will have a resting temperature around 37.5 – 38.5oc. A young foal’s normal range is a little higher, and a donkey’s a little lower. For a short demonstration of safely taking a horse’s rectal temperature go to www.redwings.org.uk/strangles/help-and-advice.
- How often do you take your horse’s temperature? Incorporate temperature checking ad-hoc into your horse’s routine, so you are both used to the procedure and you are familiar with what is normal for your horse and what is not.
- Share with care
It’s great to be able to help each other out and sharing certain items can help save costs. However, be aware that living areas or equipment can be a route of disease transmission between horses. Try to stick to your own tack and tools, or clean and disinfect anything you do share. Remember that anything a horse touches with its nose is particularly high risk, from buckets and water tanks to stabling and transport.
- Do you keep disinfectant in stock? Disinfectants vary widely, and a common household product is unlikely to kill an equine infectious disease. Look for a DEFRA approved disinfectant and check the specific pathogens it acts on. Always follow the manufacturer’s guidelines; using disinfectant incorrectly will make it both ineffective and a waste of money.
- Practise social distancing
Infectious disease spreads most easily when horses are in direct contact, especially nose to nose contact that creates a perfect transmission route for respiratory conditions. We know how important equine companionship is for our horses’ mental well-being but be alert to the risk of introducing them to horses with unknown health statuses. Remember that a horse doesn’t have to look unwell to be contagious.
As owners we should also be wary of interacting with new or unknown horses then returning to handle our own equine unless we wash our hands first. The risk may be low, but we can always make it lower.
- How would you politely discourage a stranger at a show from interacting with your horse? Infectious disease has often been a taboo subject, but we need to bring it into the open to raise awareness and remind people that there can be risk in well-meaning actions.
- Isolate as a precaution
Covid-19 has taught us the importance of isolating before disease is confirmed. If a horse may have been exposed to disease, or has symptoms that haven’t yet been diagnosed, use isolation as a precaution while waiting for test results or until the disease’s incubation period has elapsed. When it comes to infectious illness it is far better to be safe than sorry. Waiting for test results before isolating the horse means the disease has already had time to spread.
- Does your yard routinely isolate new horses? New arrivals are one of the most common ways disease makes its way onto a yard, and routine isolation is always recommended to reduce risk. Isolation doesn’t have to be complicated: a clear notice on a stable door or paddock gate asking people not to enter or touch your horse, your own equipment, and disinfectant to clean your hands and boots each time you leave.
My biosecurity habit
Abigail Turnbull, horse owner and manager and co-owner of Richmond Equestrian Centre in North Yorkshire explains why she made a habit of biosecurity:
I’ve always had high standards and pride myself on running a clean, organised, professional yard. But I think infectious disease is one of those topics that’s historically been under the radar, no one really discussed it; so like many other people, we hadn’t really considered the risk to our own horses. But when a disease like strangles strikes, as we learned very quickly, it can come at a very high cost – financially, physically, and emotionally. We had to cancel our largest British Eventing competition of the season, go into full lockdown for several weeks and it was an anxious, tiring time for everyone on the yard.
None of us want to go through it again, and I would say to anyone (and frequently do!), don’t learn about infectious disease the hard way. Good biosecurity should be a normal part of caring for horses. Compared to dealing with an outbreak, the cost and effort of protecting horses is tiny. Biosecurity habits are second nature for us now, and clients really value our commitment to the health of their horse.”
What the eye doesn’t see…
Preventing the spread of infectious disease in any species is made more challenging when contagious individuals may not look unwell. As we’ve already mentioned, a newly infected horse is often able to pass disease on before they develop visible signs of ill-health themselves for example. This is why checking horses’ temperatures is a great habit to get into, especially after they have been around other horses at an event or spent time away from home.
With some diseases, horses can also remain contagious after they have recovered from an illness. This is why it is important to work with your vet to make sure a horse has the all-clear before lifting quarantine and allowing them to come into contact with other equines again.
We may also see horses who pick up an infection and never become ill at all, or develop such mild signs that they are disregarded or mistaken for something else, while still spreading disease.
Spotlight on strangles
The most common infectious disease diagnosed in UK horses is strangles. Even when the equine flu outbreak was making national headlines during 2019, there were still many more cases of strangles recorded that year than flu.
Strangles can be a devastating disease for horses, owners, yard managers and equestrian communities and there are an estimated 600 outbreaks in the UK every year. Although research is increasing our understanding of the infection and vets’ ability to diagnose and treat it, everyone who interacts with horses has a part to play if we want to reduce this persistently widespread disease.
Getting to grips with strangles carriers
One of the reasons strangles continues to spread is the disease’s ability to create ‘strangles carriers’. A carrier is a horse that has been infected and although appears to have fully recovered and be living a normal life, is still harbouring live strangles bacteria in a part of its respiratory system called the guttural pouch.
The good news is that strangles carriers cannot only be treated, they can be prevented! Vets can use an endoscope to access the guttural pouches of a horse who is recovering from the disease and check for signs of lingering infection. The scope can also be used to flush out remaining pus and bacteria, and take samples for testing to ensure a negative result is received. If unchecked, around 10% of horses with strangles will become a carrier, able to shed disease at any time over the coming months or years, triggering fresh outbreaks, all while seeming perfectly healthy. By taking steps to prevent horses from becoming carriers, the disease’s secret weapon is deactivated.
Find out more and see guttural pouch endoscopy in action at redwings.org.uk/strangles/help-and-advice/horse-owners along with other short, practical films.
Is there a vaccination for strangles?
A new strangles vaccine is now available in the UK. Although a vaccine has been available in the UK since 2010, there have been practical drawbacks, including the need for frequent boosters, along with an inability to differentiate vaccinated and infected horses on blood tests, which can impact outbreak management or routine screening strategies.
Trial results for the new vaccine were very promising, showing the need for less frequent boosters and DIVA capability, meaning that blood sample analysis can detect whether a horse is vaccinated rather than infected. The vaccination is also be administered into the muscle, making it quicker, easier, and safer to use.
An effective strangles vaccination is an exciting and valuable step forward in our efforts to control the disease. However, vaccination is best used in partnership with other biosecurity measures, not as a replacement for them. As strangles is a bacterial disease that spreads through contact, not on the air, your Five Healthy Habits can do more to prevent transmission than in the case of an airborne virus like equine flu, where we rely on vaccination as our main line of defence.
More challenges ahead
Climate change means there is increased likelihood of additional infectious diseases affecting horses in the UK that are currently rare or unrecorded. Conditions such as West Nile Virus and African Horse Sickness are already spreading to parts of the world where outbreaks have not been recorded, meaning there is no herd immunity and horses are very susceptible.
Longer spells of warmer, wetter weather are becoming a norm, along with fewer hard frosts in winter. This changing picture can make it easier for many bacteria, viruses, and spores to survive throughout the year, increasing the prevalence of pathogens in our horses’ environments.
This means the importance of good biosecurity is only likely to increase in the coming years. By establishing healthy habits now and knowing how to protect horses from infections like strangles that are already familiar to us, we can be far better prepared for new and even more unwelcome diseases that may threaten us in the future.
Make it a pledge!
Research has shown repeatedly that knowing we should do something doesn’t always translate into actually doing it. Wouldn’t life be easier if it did?! But there are also proven tactics we can use to increase our chances of starting and sticking to a new habit:
- Break it down into manageable steps
- Do it with a friend or as a group
- Turn your intention into a positive statement
- Tell other people
Redwings developed the ‘Stamp Out Strangles’ pledge to help give horse owners the best chance of introducing and sustaining good biosecurity habits. By taking the free online pledge horse owners, yard managers, vets and equine professionals are joining a growing network of equestrians who want to actively protect horses from infectious disease.
All pledgers receive a Strangles: Speak Out information pack, endorsed by the British Equine Veterinary Association, which is full of advice, information and ready to use resources. Regular, practical emails share additional ideas, reminders and top tips to help us all reach the point where protecting our horses from infectious disease is a habit we no longer need to think about.
In a survey of horse owners who had pledged to Stamp Out Strangles, 75% of respondents said their biosecurity had improved since taking the pledge, and 100% would recommend the pledge to other owners!
Pledging takes less than a minute and is completely free. Just go to redwings.org.uk/strangles/make-a-pledge
Did you know?
At the 2012 London Olympic Games, a key message for all equestrian teams was “small biosecurity changes have a big impact on health.” The guidelines included washing hands, avoiding contact with other horses, limiting contact between horses and not sharing equipment. If Team GB can make a habit of protecting horse health, surely we can too!