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Q. I have been advised by a horseowning friend to get my seven-year-old 16hh cob mare vaccinated for equine influenza but I’ve heard horses can suffer adverse reactions. Is this true?

Also, if my horse does get flu, are there any alternative therapies which would aid recovery?

Tim Couzens MRCVS replies: Horseowners are now looking at vaccines more critically, especially since recent publicity has highlighted some of the potentially adverse effects of vaccination in dogs.

Vaccines have, of course, been around for many years and are constantly undergoing development, refinement and monitoring to produce a better and safer product. Their efficacy in protecting against the equine flu viruses and tetanus has been proven over the course of time. In addition, all vaccine manufacturers have to put their products through rigorous testing and safety procedures before their products are allowed on the market. This is to minimise any unwarranted andunwelcome side effects and to maximise the protection offered by the vaccine.

Nevertheless vaccines do cause reactions in some horses. These fall into two broad categories:

  • Reactions which manufacturers recognise as a problem and which occur in a small number of horses

  • Reactions which homoeopaths recognise as upsetting the body at a deeper level, leading to ill-health.

    Reactions to vaccines

    The types of reactions which fall into the first group are recognisable by many horseowners:

  • The most common of these is a local reaction around the site of the injection. This appears as a lump or swelling which may be painful or feel hot and lead to the neck becoming stiff. The cause can be either a reaction to the components of the vaccine itself or due to an infection introduced at the time of the injection. Usually local reactions will pass off in a few days. In a few cases an abscess can form as the result of an infection in which case you will need to call your vet back.

  • Some horses will develop reactions which have a more overall or systemic effect. These animals will appear off-colour for a few days with vague symptoms, often slight lethargy or occasionally a lack of stamina for a week or two. Normally these signs pass quite quickly.

  • Finally there are horses which develop signs of obvious ill-health following vaccination. This is thought to be caused by the animal having a sub-clinical illness, which means they were unwell at the time of the infection but had no obvious symptoms.

    The vaccination stresses the immune system causing disease symptoms to appear. This may account for those animals which appear to develop flu shortly after being vaccinated.Veterinary surgeons involved with natural medicine will also be aware of reactions which occur in the second category, including those which are much less well-defined and more difficult to prove.

    Reactions of this type have a more profound and long-lasting effect on health. The underlying reason is the way in which vaccines appear to be able to affect or alter the immune system leading to a condition generally referred to as vaccinosis. This term is applied to any long-term health problem arising after a vaccination. Vaccinosis problems seen in horses include the development of COPD, mud fever, skin allergies and loss of performance.

    Making the decision

    The ultimate decision whether to vaccinate or not is a very personal one. Conventional vaccines have a proven track record and are well tried and tested. Other than this, the level of protection they offer can be measured by a blood test if need be. However, a small number of horses will react to vaccination either with short-term reversible problems or by developing much more serious health consequences which are linked to vaccinosis.

    If you plan to avoid using conventional vaccines then there are one or two points that you should consider. While equine flu can be serious, the risk of not vaccinating against tetanus can have even more serious consequences. Other than this, failure to vaccinate may mean you won’t be allowedto compete at a number of events where vaccination is mandatory.

    Looking at alternatives

    If, after careful thought, you decide not to vaccinate your horse, then homoeopathy can offer an alternative by the use of homoeopathic remedies known as nosodes. This method is referred to as ‘homoeopathic vaccination’.

    Nosodes are made from the equine flu virus and tetanus toxin/bacteria in much the same way as other homoeopathic remedies are made by a process of specialdilution. The mechanism by which they offer protection has not yet been proven and certainly there is nothing measurable in the blood to confirm that the animals are protected. Nonetheless, in as much as homoeopathy works, nosodes do seem to have some effect upon the body and may well offer some form of protection.

    Other than the use of nosodes there are ways to improve your horse’s immune system and help him fight against flu, indlucing natural remedies:

  • Herbal remedies are ideal for boosting your horse’s natural defences, including garlic, echinacea and cleavers. And, if your horse is unlucky enough to catch flu, these remedies will be useful during the recovery phase.

  • Homoeopathic remedies can also be used to help your horse recover from a bout of flu but the exact choice of remedy will depend on the horse’s symptoms. Remedies Arsenicum album, Arsenicum iodatum, Kali bich, Pulsatilla, Silica and Natrum muriaticum.

    If you are considering using nosodes you should discuss the situation with your usual vet first and then ask for a referral to a homoeopathic vet. He/she would be qualified to offer you the specialist advice you’re going to need.