A horse in Harford county Maryland has been euthanized because of rabies. The horse first starting showing signs of disease in mid-July, which manifested as "striking changes in behaviour." The report doesn’t say when the horse died, but animals typically die within a few days of the onset of neurological disease. The horse was transferred to the New Bolton Center where rabies was diagnosed. Subsequent testing showed it was a raccoon rabies strain, although that does not mean that a raccoon was the actual source of infection.

Public health officials implemented a 45 day quarantine of the farm. Stray cats (about 25) were caught and euthanized. Fortunately, the family pets were properly vaccinated and have received booster shots (plus presumably a period of observation at home… a much better situation than if they were not vaccinated).

People that had contact with the horse have received rabies post-exposure treatment. This includes one person who had to be tracked down overseas.

Harford County Health Department spokesperson Bill Wiseman said "There was never a risk to public safety. This incident was a great example of public health work in action and cooperation between local, state and in this case, international authorities." I don’t buy the statement that there was no risk to public health. While the risk of rabies transmission from infected horses is very low, it’s not zero. Rabid horses have killed people because of their abnormal and sometimes aggressive behaviour. Further, the fact that this horse had rabies means that it got it from something. Rabies can have a long incubation period so it’s not guaranteed that it acquired it on the farm, but you have to be prudent and assume that there is infected wildlife in the area that could pose a risk for other animals or people. Public health authorities managed the situation well and reduced the public health risks, but there were certainly still risks.

Rabies vaccination is highly effective. There is no statement about whether this horse was adequately vaccinated but it’s unlikely. Proper vaccination would likely have prevented this horse’s death, as well as the death of the stray animals, cost of vaccination of people, cost of veterinary care for this horse, quarantine of the farm and the associated financial and emotional costs. A dose of vaccine that costs a few dollars could have saved thousands of dollars and emotional stress.

Rabies is a rare disease in horses but its severity means it should not be ingored. Vaccinate your horses.

This Worms & Germs blog entry was originally posted on equIDblog on 14-Aug-09.