I received newsletter today from Intervet (a pharmaceutical company) that is targeted at equine veterinarians. One article discussed rabies in horses. It wasn’t bad overall, but I thought the section on what to do when a horse might have been exposed to rabies was worth discussing.

The article asks, "If your client suspects that a horse has been bitten by a rabies-infected animal, what should be done?"

Answer: "Contacting you as the veterinarian is always the first step."

Great first step.  A second step that wasn’t mentioned should be, "Try to identify and (safely) capture the animal that bit the horse." This is often impossible but certainly worthwhile if it can be done.  However, if you’re trying to catch the offending animal, make sure you don’t put yourself at risk of exposure to rabies in the process.  If the animal can be caught, it’s rabies status at the time of the bite can be determined (either through testing or quarantine). If it can be shown that the animal wasn’t rabid, a lot of stress, hassle and expense can be saved.

"If the horse was previously vaccinated… Then isolate and observe the animal for 45 to 90 days (your clinical evaluation will involve gait analysis, radiography and a spinal tap)."

Boosting the rabies vaccine is also a good idea. The next step, however, needs to be contacting local regulatory officials to find out what you have to do. They determine if, how and how long an animal needs to be quarantined – this is NOT the decision of the local veterinarian nor the animal’s owner. Most likely, they will recommend a 45 day quarantine for a vaccinated horse, since this is what is recommended in the NASPHV Compendium on Rabies. The discussion of diagnostic testing makes no sense. There is absolutely no indication to perform diagnostic tests on a horse that has been bitten by a rabies suspect. None. There are no tests that can be used to diagnose rabies in live horses (also exposed horses don’t instantly develop signs of rabies). Horses should be monitored closely for signs of rabies during the quarantine period, but that’s it.

"…and have the client make a list of all people who had contact with the horse."

This is often done when horses have or are suspected of having rabies, but not horses that are potentially exposed. It is done to help public health personnel contact people that may have been exposed to rabies. A horse that was just bitten by an animal is not a risk for transmission of rabies.  (However, keeping a list of people who have contact with the horse after it’s been bitten (i.e. durng the quarantine period) – which should be as short a list as possible – is a reasonable precaution in the unlikely event that the horse does develop rabies.)

"If the animal was not vaccinated, your options are to euthanize and perform a postmortem examination of the brain (the only way to definitely confirm rabies)…"

Euthanasia is one of the options that needs to be considered in an unvaccinated horse that has been exposed, which is one of the reasons that identifying the biting animal and testing it is critical, if it can be done. The last part of the above sentence (from the atricle) is complete nonsense. Why would you test the brain of a normal horse that has been euthanized because it’s just been bitten by a potentially rabid animal? The horse isn’t being euthanized because it has rabies, it’s being euthanized because of the likelihood  of it developing rabies weeks to months later. Testing of the brain will tell you absolutely nothing if the animal was only bitten recently.

"…or isolate and observe the horse for six months and develop the human contact list."

Again, this needs to be decided based on discussions with regulatory personnel who are responsible for dictating what is to be done. A six-month quarantine is a pretty standard recommendation for an unvaccinated animal. Creating a human contact list should not be necessary, since quarantine involves severely restricting contact of people with the horse and only a few (ideally one) person would have any type of contact.

The article wraps up with the very true emphasis on vaccinating horses. It’s a cheap measure to prevent a relatively rare but invariably fatal disease.

Click image for source.

This Worms & Germs blog entry was originally posted on equIDblog on 05-Jan-10.