As a vet, I’ve been bitten by a wide range of animal species. When people talk about animal bites, they usually think about dogs and cats. Horses can (and do) bite as well. Most horse bites are probably playful nips that hurt a little yet don’t cause major problems, but some bites can cause serious injuries and infections can result.

A recent paper in the Journal of Agromedicine (Langley and Morris 2009), with the rather unwieldy title of "That Horse Bit Me: Zoonotic Infections of Equines to Consider after Exposure Through the Bite or the Oral/Nasal Secretions". Bites apparently account for 3-4.5% of the approximately 100 000 annual emergency room visits in the US that are associated with horses. The authors of the paper review infections associated with bites and contact with organisms in the mouth and nose of horses.

A large number of bacteria have been associated with horse bite infections in people, including Actinobacillus, Streptococcus, Psuedomonas and Staphylococcus species. Some viruses can theoretically be transmitted by bites, but there’s little evidence that this actually happens.

Although viruses are not of as much of a concern overall, rabies needs to be considered in every bite from a mammal. We pay a lot of attention to rabies with dogs, cats and wildlife, but it often gets ignored with horses. While I’m not aware of any reports of rabies transmission from horses to humans by a bite, it could happen.  Fortunately, rabies is rare in horses so the likelihood of exposure from this species is very low. However signs of rabies aren’t always obvious initially, and rabies in horses may mimic other diseases. Sometimes, rabies looks like colic, and human exposure through bites or other contact is possible when handling, evaluating and treating affected horses.

Unlike with dogs and cats, there are no clearly defined protocols for dealing with bites from horses. Any dog or cat that bites a person is supposed to be quarantined for 10 days. The reason for this is if the animal is rabid and the disease is advanced enough for the animal to be capable of spreading rabies virus, it would invariably develop signs of rabies and die within this time period. We don’t have similar guidelines for horses. I suspect the 10 day observation period would be adequate but we don’t have good data. The paper states that in Kentucky, a 14 day observation period has been used by the state Department of Public Health.

At the conclusion of the paper, the authors make a few important general recommendations for reducing the risk of disease transmission from bites and oral or nasal secretions of horses:

  • Use good general hygiene, especially hand hygiene, after any contact with horses.
  • Use gloves and gown or lab coat when examining horses in a veterinary clinic or hospital. (This might be overkill for all horses. We don’t require gloves for every horse contact, just contact with mucous membranes (e.g. mouth, nose), wounds, incision sites and other high-risk areas. I think bare hands are fine for general contact as long as there is good attention to handwashing after.)
  • Consider mask and goggles if the horse is coughing or sneezing.
  • Develop standard operating procedures for handling sick horses.
  • Use isolation when needed.

I’d add a few more points:

  • Avoid bites. Pay attention to what you are doing around horses to reduce the risk of being bitten. Do not encourage playful behaviours (e.g. nipping) that could lead to bites.
  • If you are bitten and it breaks the skin, clean the site thoroughly with soap and water. If there is significant trauma, or if the bite is over a joint, hand, foot, or a prosthetic device, you should see a doctor immediately because antibiotics are most likely indicated. If you have a weakened immune system, you should be evaluated by a doctor after any bite.
  • Avoid contact with the horse’s mouth or nose if you have skin lesions. Cuts and scrapes can allow bacteria to enter your body and cause infections. If you have a cut on your hand, make sure it is covered with a glove or waterproof dressing if you are going to have contact with the horse’s mouth or something that came from its mouth (e.g. a bit).

This Worms & Germs blog entry was originally posted on equIDblog on 02-Sep-09.