Biosecurity may be a buzzword in veterinary circles, but what does it mean for the horse owner in practical terms?
Put simply, biosecurity refers to the good hygiene practices that prevent the transmission of infectious disease. Looking back at the outbreaks of equine flu and strangles that have ravaged the equestrian population this year, causing sickness and yard closures, the need for better protection is clear.
“Infections are constantly circulating, so the threat is always there,” says Fleur Whitlock MRCVS, who stresses that biosecurity is our first line of defence. “By adopting everyday yard hygiene habits, we can work to ensure that our horses stay healthy and infection-free.”
Protect your premises with some simple steps…
Understand the risks
“Biosecurity is applicable to the whole horse population,” says Fleur, emphasising that it’s not just the big, busy yards that need to worry. “It’s important to remember that infectious disease can be spread through direct and indirect contact.
“Infection is more obviously shared through direct horse-to-horse contact, occurring over the stable door or in the field, or at a show or event,” she explains. “But those stay-at-home horses are at risk, too, as we can spread infection on our hands as we touch or handle different animals or move between yards.”
Identify the essentials
The “gold standard” yard biosecurity measures are outlined in the Horserace Betting Levy Board codes of practice (codes.hblb.org.uk). Is it practical to implement all the recommendations, on a regular basis?
“There are many hygiene and management habits that should be undertaken daily,” says Fleur, who highlights examples such as disinfecting feed and water buckets, and cleaning your hands between touching different animals. “While the real benefits are gained when habits are carried out at all times, some may need to be adapted to your individual situation and escalated at times of increased risk. It takes time to make change, but persevere so that good hygiene becomes second nature.”
Draw up a plan
If you haven’t done so already, set out your yard biosecurity plan.
“Discuss your approach with everyone involved, including grooms and liveries, making sure that everyone knows the plan and sticks to it,” says Fleur. “This includes yard visitors, such as vets, farriers and clients.”
Keep things clean
Washing hands — even between horses on the same yard — will help halt the spread of infection, says Fleur. Another option is to use antibacterial hand gel placed at strategic points around the yard, such as the entrance gate and outside stables.
“Disinfect your hands and ideally change into clean clothes when dealing with groups of horses that would not normally have any contact,” she adds. “Designate horses to certain groups and keep these the same at turnout time and when stabling. Each horse should have his own equipment, such as headcollar, grooming kit and buckets, clearly labelled.”
Isolate new arrivals
“A new horse is a common cause of an infection outbreak,” says Fleur, who recommends a 21-day isolation period — even if the newcomer appears outwardly healthy. “Ensure that he is vaccinated against equine flu, but remember that he will only have protection from two weeks after the second vaccine in a primary course,” she adds. “Ask your vet about any tests for infectious disease, such as the blood test that can identify carriers of strangles.”
Be alert for signs
Reduced appetite? Runny nose? Not quite himself? These are all signs that a horse may be ill.
“Additional signs that suggest he has an infection could include lethargy, coughing, swollen lymph nodes in the throat area and a temperature of 38.5°C or above,” explains Fleur. “Taking and recording a horse’s rectal temperature daily is advisable, especially at times of high risk such as after attending a show or if another horse at the yard has been diagnosed with an infection.
“If you suspect infection, isolate the individual immediately and call your vet.”
Keep jabs current
“Flu vaccination is extremely important. It does not always prevent all clinical signs, but will reduce their severity — limiting the amount of virus a horse can spread and the length of time he spreads it for,” says Fleur, explaining that vaccination on a yard-wide basis is most effective. “Ask your vet about appropriate vaccines for other contagious diseases, such as equine herpes virus [EHV].”
Show common sense
Mixing horses that do not normally have contact ramps up the risk.
“Avoid horse-to-horse or -human contact at shows or events,” says Fleur, who also advises steering clear of communal equipment, grazing areas and water troughs. “Clean and disinfect temporary stabling before use and make sure that neighbouring horses can’t touch each other. Once home, disinfect vehicles and equipment — and monitor your horse for signs of illness over the coming weeks.
“Cancel any forthcoming travel plans if infection is suspected, or diagnosed at the yard.”
Should the worst happen, what next?
“Infection can occur, despite the best efforts,” says Fleur. “Outbreaks can be stressful for all involved, but it’s important to be open and honest with other owners and surrounding yards. Close monitoring of all horses and immediate isolation of infected animals will help to contain disease.”
Ref Horse & Hound; 19 September 2019