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Care Guide

About Care Guides[x] These care guides are written to help your clients understand common conditions, tests, and procedures, as well as to provide basic information about pet care. They are based on the most up-to-date, documented information, recommendations, and guidelines available in the United States at the time of writing. Pharmaceutical product licensing, availability, and usage recommendations are based on US product information. Use the Download Handout button to generate a PDF for printing or e-mailing to your clients.

Equine Vaccination Recommendations

    • Many serious equine diseases can be prevented or better controlled through vaccination.
    • Equine vaccinations are typically administered in the spring and the fall.
    • Remember to maintain accurate records of your horse’s vaccination history.
    • Equine vaccinations are considered “core” (essential) or “noncore” (risk-based).
    • Vaccine recommendations are based on an individual horse’s usage (e.g., show horse, broodmare, trail horse), likely travel plans, management, and age.

    Why Should Horses Be Vaccinated?

    Many diseases in horses can be serious and even life threatening. They can be expensive to treat and may require significant convalescent periods, during which the horse cannot be shown, transported, bred or ridden. Vaccination is a relatively inexpensive and effective way of protecting equine health. Thankfully, effective vaccines are available for many of the serious infectious diseases affecting horses. While they cannot prevent all infectious disease, they can help minimize clinical signs and the severity of infection. On many farms, indicated vaccines are typically administered seasonally, in the spring and the fall. Important vaccinations are often given in combination form so that one or two injections will protect against multiple diseases.

    Core Vaccines

    Core vaccines are those that organized equine veterinary medicine—the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP)—considers to be essential to maintaining the health and well-being of the average horse; in addition, some are necessary to safeguard human health. The core equine vaccines are tetanus, Eastern equine encephalomyelitis and Western equine encephalomyelitis (EEE/WEE), West Nile virus, and rabies.

    Tetanus

    Tetanus is caused by the bacterium Clostridium tetani. Spores from this bacterium can be found almost everywhere in the environment, including horses’ intestinal tracts and feces. Tetanus is a serious, frequently fatal disease. Once the bacteria infect a wound, they release neurotoxins that cause muscle spasms and paralysis leading to death. The disease rarely occurs in properly vaccinated animals.

    Tetanus can result from any kind of wound, even a small one, but it is most frequently associated with puncture or wire wounds in the feet or muscles, surgical wounds, and exposed tissue, such as the umbilicus of foals or the reproductive tracts of mares that have recently foaled. Diagnosis is generally achieved by a thorough physical examination of the affected horse and blood tests. Treatment is a combination of supportive therapy and medications such as antibiotics. Severely affected horses often do not survive due to complications.

    In adult horses, an initial two-dose vaccine series should be followed by an annual booster. When a horse is injured or undergoes a surgical procedure, its tetanus vaccination status should be checked and another booster given if necessary.

    Recommendations for foals’ vaccination against tetanus depend on the dam’s vaccination status. If the dam has been vaccinated against tetanus 4 to 6 weeks before foaling, the foal can be vaccinated starting at 4 to 6 months of age with a series of three vaccines. Otherwise, the foal can be vaccinated between 1 and 4 months of age with a series of three vaccines.

    Eastern Equine Encephalomyelitis and Western Equine Encephalomyelitis

    These two serious diseases are transmitted by mosquitoes. The risk of infection exists almost anywhere in the United States where mosquitoes can be found and during all parts of the year when they are present. EEE is more prevalent in the eastern United States; WEE is more prevalent in the West and Midwest. Although infection is relatively rare, the disease can be catastrophic. Approximately 50% of horses infected with WEE die. The fatality rate among horses with EEE approaches 90%. Humans can also get EEE/WEE. A third disease, known as Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis (VEE), is prevalent in Central and South America. Although the Venezuelan form is not common in the United States, horses in southern states such as Texas are often vaccinated for VEE because of their proximity to Central America.

    These viruses attack the brain and spinal cord and can cause incoordination, muscle twitching, depression, paralysis, and erratic behavior. Horses that are severely affected may die. Diagnosis is generally achieved by a thorough physical examination and testing of blood and cerebrospinal fluid. Treatment is primarily supportive (e.g., intravenous fluids, antiinflammatory medication, nursing care).

    In adult horses, an initial two vaccinations 4 to 6 weeks apart should be followed by an annual booster. In regions where mosquitoes are prevalent year round, such as the southeastern United States, or in situations in which a horse from a northern climate is traveling to a more temperate zone for sale, competition, etc., more frequent vaccination may be recommended.

    Recommendations for foals’ vaccination against EEE/WEE depend on the dam’s vaccination status. If the dam has been vaccinated against EEE/WEE 4 to 6 weeks before foaling, then the foal can be vaccinated starting at 4 to 6 months of age with a series of three vaccines. If the dam is not vaccinated 4 to 6 weeks before foaling, the foal can be vaccinated between 3 and 4 months of age with a series of three vaccines.

    Preventive measures also include eliminating any standing water in the farm environment that is conducive to breeding mosquitoes, as well as limiting turnout during times of the day when mosquitoes are most active (e.g., dusk, early morning).

    West Nile Virus

    Like EEE/WEE, West Nile virus is transmitted by mosquitoes. The disease is associated with a significant death rate of about 35%. Approximately 40% of horses that recover still show residual effects more than 6 months after recovery. West Nile virus is currently the leading cause of encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) in horses in the United States.

    West Nile virus causes potentially life-threatening encephalitis. It attacks the spinal cord and brain and can cause incoordination, muscle twitching, depression, paralysis, and erratic behavior such as hypersensitivity to the head and neck being touched. Horses that are severely affected may become recumbent (unable to stand) and eventually die. Diagnosis is generally achieved by a thorough physical examination and testing of blood and cerebrospinal fluid, if needed. Treatment is primarily supportive (e.g., intravenous fluids, antiinflammatory medication, nursing care).

    Vaccine dosage regimens in adult horses depend on the vaccine type chosen. In some cases, an initial vaccine is followed by a booster 3 to 6 weeks later and then annual revaccination. In other cases, a single initial dose will be followed by an annual booster. As with the EEE/WEE vaccine, a more frequent revaccination schedule may be recommended based on mosquito populations or the horse’s travel schedule.

    Contact your veterinarian regarding a schedule for West Nile virus vaccination for foals.

    Preventive measures also include eliminating any standing water in the farm environment that is conducive to breeding mosquitoes, as well as limiting turnout during times of day when mosquitoes are most active (e.g., dusk, early morning).

    Rabies

    Rabies is a serious disease that is 100% fatal. However, it is almost completely preventable through vaccination. While the incidence of rabies in horses is low, it is a serious public health threat for anyone who is involved in handling horses. The rabies virus attacks the central nervous system (brain, nerves, and spinal cord) of mammals and is transmitted through infected saliva, either through a direct bite wound or by contact with any open wound or mucous membrane.

    Clinical signs vary widely and can take anywhere from weeks to months to develop after exposure. Signs frequently include behavioral changes, incoordination, muscle tremors, seizure, paralysis, and coma. However, the signs are nonspecific, and rabies can be extremely hard to diagnose. There is no treatment. Once clinical signs appear, rabies is 100% fatal as well as contagious to people handling the horse or the horse’s body fluids.

    Adult horses should be vaccinated annually. Additional preventive measures include limiting a horse’s exposure to wildlife and reporting any wild animals that exhibit abnormal behavior to the appropriate authorities for professional removal and testing.

    Contact your veterinarian regarding a vaccination schedule for foals, which depends on the dam’s vaccination status.

    If a horse is exposed to a known rabid animal, the horse should be reported to the state veterinarian and public health officials and handled according to state and federal regulations. A vaccinated horse may be revaccinated immediately and placed under quarantine/veterinary observation for an extended period of time. Unvaccinated animals are handled according to state and federal regulations. 

    Risk-Based (Noncore) Vaccines

    The decision of whether to vaccinate horses against many other common equine diseases depends on the animal’s individual risk factors, such as geographic location, likely travel or competition plans, potential for exposure to other horses (boarding stable versus backyard barn), age, breeding status, and overall health. Consult your veterinarian about which risk-based vaccines are appropriate for your horse. Risk-based vaccines for horses include the following:

    Rhinopneumonitis (Equine Herpesvirus)

    Equine herpesvirus (EHV) causes rhinopneumonitis, a serious viral disease of horses. Equine herpesvirus type 1 (EHV-1) and equine herpesvirus type 4 (EHV-4) can both cause respiratory disease in horses, characterized by fever, nasal discharge, and cough. EHV in its different forms is prevalent in equine populations. It is spread through the air, through contact with respiratory or nasal secretions, and by exposure to infected fetal tissues/fluids. EHV-1 may cause abortion in pregnant mares and severe illness, leading to death, in neonatal foals. It may also attack the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), resulting in clinical signs such as incoordination, paralysis, coma, and death. Treatment is primarily supportive care for either respiratory or neurologic disease.

    When an outbreak of EHV is suspected, conscientious management and biosecurity measures should be undertaken to prevent transmission to healthy horses. The virus can be transmitted on people’s hands, clothing, and shared equipment. It is important to be aware that horses, even after they are fully recovered, can remain carriers of the disease and may continue to shed the virus for a period of time.

    Adult, nonbreeding horses should receive an initial series of three vaccines at 4- to 6-week intervals, followed by boosters as necessary. Reboostering may be recommended as frequently as every 6 months for young horses and whenever a local outbreak occurs. For recommended vaccination schedules for foals, breeding animals, and/or pregnant mares, consult your veterinarian.

    Equine Influenza

    While equine influenza A virus is rarely fatal except in debilitated animals, it is highly contagious and can cause significant illness resulting in extended loss of training and use. The virus is one of the most common causes of equine respiratory disease in the United States. Equine influenza is marked by rapid onset of high fever, lethargy (tiredness), and cough. The virus is spread through the air.

    Treatment is primarily supportive care and rest. Nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and antibiotics may be prescribed if the horse’s fever persists or if a purulent nasal discharge develops, which may indicate a secondary bacterial infection.

    Horses between the ages of 1 and 5 years and older horses that are frequently stressed by competition, transport, or repeated exposure to large groups of horses are at higher risk of contracting the disease. These horses should be vaccinated as frequently as once every 6 months. Any horse that does not live in a “closed herd” environment (with no access to horses other than its herdmates) should be considered for annual vaccination. Boostering at a shorter interval may also be recommended if a local outbreak occurs. Contact your veterinarian regarding a vaccination schedule for foals, which depends on the dam’s vaccination status.

    Other preventive measures include isolating new herd/stable additions for 14 days.

    Potomac Horse Fever

    Potomac horse fever (PHF), also known as equine monocytic ehrlichiosis, is caused by the bacterium Neorickettsia risticii. Despite its name, PHF is found throughout most regions of the United States and Canada. The disease is seasonal, generally appearing in the spring, summer, and fall, and is associated with pastures located near waterways. Signs of infection vary but may include fever, mild to severe diarrhea, laminitis, and colic. As a result, the disease can result in fatal complications and has a death rate of 5% to 30%.

    Diagnosis is generally made based on a thorough physical examination and blood and/or fecal tests. Treatment consists of administering antibiotics early in the disease course and supportive care. Affected horses are not contagious and do not need to be isolated.

    Vaccination may be recommended for at-risk horses in areas where the disease is present and should be timed to precede the warmer months of higher incidence. Adult horses should receive an initial series of two vaccine doses 3 to 4 weeks apart, followed by a booster 12 months later. More frequent vaccination may be recommended in areas where infection is more common. Contact your veterinarian regarding a vaccination schedule for foals, which depends on the dam’s vaccination status.

    Botulism

    Botulism is caused by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. This bacterium is present in soil as spores, especially in certain areas of the United States, such as the mid-Atlantic states. The spores can germinate into active bacteria that produce a neurotoxin called botulinum toxin. Horses may be exposed by eating food contaminated with the toxin or the spores themselves (foals) or through wound contamination with soil that contains spores. This infection can occur at any time of year. The disease is not contagious, but outbreaks may occur if multiple horses eat contaminated hay or grain. Signs of infection include difficulty chewing/swallowing and progressive weakness, culminating in recumbency (inability to stand) and death.

    Diagnosis is made by a thorough physical examination and blood and/or fecal tests. Treatment is very expensive and consists of administering antitoxin and supportive care, including intravenous fluids and feeding the horse through a tube a few times per day. Horses that are severely affected are likely to develop respiratory paralysis, leading to death.

    Vaccination prevents this disease and requires a series of three vaccines initially, followed by an annual booster. Foals at high risk in an endemic area can be vaccinated as early as 2 weeks of age, so contact your veterinarian regarding a vaccination schedule for foals.

    Strangles

    Infection with the bacterium Streptococcus equi equi, also commonly known as strangles, is very contagious and can spread quickly among horses. It can affect one or two horses on a farm, or large outbreaks may occur. While any horse can develop strangles, younger horses (less than 5 years old) are more often affected. This infection is usually spread through contact with an infected horse through nasal discharge (e.g., nose-to-nose contact), sharing equipment (e.g., buckets or automatic waterers), or contact with people handling an infected horse. An affected horse may have a fever, depression, loss of appetite, thick yellow/whitish nasal discharge, and visibly enlarged and/or draining lymph nodes under the jaw. The name “strangles” comes from affected horses’ difficulty in swallowing and breathing due to enlarged lymph nodes. Clinical signs can range from mild (fever, mild nasal discharge) to severe (labored breathing and death due to an obstructed airway from large lymph nodes).

    Diagnosis is based on a thorough physical examination and tests such as blood tests and samples submitted for bacterial culture. Treatment often includes symptomatic treatment such as NSAIDs to decrease inflammation and hot packing the affected lymph nodes to encourage rupture and drainage. Horses that are more severely affected may need additional treatment such as antibiotics; horses with severe infection often require intensive treatment to survive.

    Vaccination for strangles is based on the horse’s risk of exposure to this disease. Horses that travel frequently, are exposed to new horses in the barn, and/or are exposed to horses that travel frequently are likely to need this vaccine. The most common form of vaccination against strangles is intranasal vaccination, in which a liquid is placed into the horse’s nose to provide local immunity to the area of the horse’s body that would be in contact with the infectious material. An intramuscular vaccine is also available. Contact your veterinarian regarding a vaccination schedule for foals.

    It is important to remember that vaccination is a medical procedure. Consult your veterinarian in order to determine which vaccines are appropriate based on the disease risk analysis for individual horses.