Owners of horses who test “non-negative” for certain diseases on their arrival in the US can be told the animals must either be deported, at high cost, or put down. H&H speaks to some of those affected, US authorities and other experts...
A call has been made for change to the “euthanise or deport” protocol for horses who test “non-negative” for certain equine diseases on arrival in the US following recent cases.
Equines are tested for piroplasmosis (a tick-borne disease), dourine (parasitic venereal disease, eradicated in many countries), glanders and equine infectious anaemia (EIA) on arrival in the country. The vast majority of the thousands of horses who arrive from abroad test negative and pass through the border with no issue.
For the few who give false positives or “non-negative” tests – the phrase used by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to describe anything that is not clearly a negative test – the repercussions have significant moral and financial consequences for owners.
The USDA has told H&H it is “reviewing the current protocol”.
Seller Peter de Boer made the call for change last month, after a horse he shipped from the Netherlands to the US twice tested non-negative for dourine, for which the horse had tested negative before departure. The disease has been eradicated in much of Europe, including the Netherlands, and this gelding has never been used for breeding. He was told that the horse must be deported or put down.
In a separate case in May, UK seller Becki Jones sold a showjumper to the US on behalf of a client and, as part of due diligence, blood samples were taken in the UK before departure, which came back within the permitted levels for piroplasmosis.
On arrival in the US, the horse twice tested non-negative for the disease and they were given the “deport or destroy” option.
After taking the case to Congress, the horse was permitted to have a third test, which was also non-negative. He was flown back to France, where he tested negative.
“I don’t understand the logic,” Ms Jones told H&H, adding that she does not understand why horses cannot be kept in quarantine to be retested. “It’s not in the horse’s best interest [to be put down or put back on a long flight]. The quarantine facility is there for a reason, it’s not costing them anything, it is the cost to the owner.”
A moral and financial dilemma
“[Depending on an owners’ financial situation], they can find themselves in a place where they cannot afford to send them back, but cannot bring themselves to euthanise a perfectly healthy horse. Thankfully it only affects a few, but for those few it is a very emotional dilemma,” Scarlette Gotwals, vet and director of flight operations at international horse transport companies Horse America and Brooke Ledge, told H&H.
She added this is not a case of this happening to one transporter and not others, but is an issue with the choice of testing and how the issue is handled by the USDA.
Dr Gotwals explained this is owing to the fact that the method used involves screening testing, rather than diagnostic testing. The difference is a screening test is to detect potential disease indicators, whereas a diagnostic test establishes the presence (or absence) of a disease.
“We are not talking about horses that truly have these diseases,” she said, adding these are cases where for some reason, likely as a result of stress of travelling, the horses’ samples taken on arrival are presenting a false positive.
“Nobody is suggesting they want to put the national herd at risk, we are not asking for horses to be released without clear testing, but for time so they can get a negative test [instead of being] flown all the way back to Europe.”
Dr Gotwals added that the USDA is considering modifying the protocol to permit “non-negative” horses to remain in quarantine and retest in another 14 days, with the chance for an additional 14 days before another retest. At that point if the animal still tests non-negative, it will be denied entry.
There is precedent for the regulations being changed to allow for more time, as the protocol for horses testing non-negative for glanders was altered several years ago to allow for additional time and more retests.
But the timescales are much shorter for equines who present non-negatives for piroplasmosis, dourine or EIA.
A spokesman for the USDA APHIS told H&H fewer than 1% of the 39,000 horses imported to the US through airports since 2016 have received non-negative results during import quarantine.
“USDA equine import testing protocol is not intended to diagnose individual clinical or subclinical cases,” he said. “Rather, it is a risk assessment and avoidance measure to protect the US equine population from disease introduction.
“Reactions to the test completed while horses are in import quarantine could be due to multiple components including elevated serum components, shipping stress or cross reactions due to infection with other agents.
“All horses imported requiring quarantine follow the established testing protocol. Test results are used as a risk assessment toward potential exposure to the domestic equine population.”
He added the testing protocol is extensively reviewed among state animal health officials, laboratory personnel, and USDA equine health commodity staff.
“Therefore, we are confident in our precautionary measures to keep the United States free of disease,” said the spokesman.
“Still, the USDA is reviewing the current protocol in conjunction with the state animal health officials to ensure information is provided clearly with consistent expectations for testing. We will appropriately inform the equine industry if there are any revisions to the current protocol language as soon as our review is completed.”
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