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First Posted: Nov 2, 2010
Mar 1, 2012

Rabies in Horses

There are two vaccinations that I will always give to my horses: rabies and tetanus. I give others, as well, however those two are a must. Although our horses have stalls, I prefer them to be out most of the time. Their environment is lovely and in a country setting. There are many wild animals including fox, racoon, skunk and an occasional bear. Of course, there are the many other critters that inhabit the land including bats at night. My husband and I trail ride at the battlefield as well as other area parks so the horses are at risk to exposure to rabies. Rabies is caused by a virus from the rhabdovirus family. It is a zoonotic disease and can cross from horse to human, to domestic pets and other livestock. Basically all land mammals can get rabies.

I have been at a barn, in past years, where a horse did get rabies. It was in the state of Maryland. The horse had not been vaccinated. The barn was put in quarantine, every person at the barn who had come in contact with the horse had to undergo rabies shots. Horses who had been vaccinated were given booster shots. Horses who had not been vaccinated were not given shots and were put under quarantine for six months. The state vet and health department were notified and monitored the situation until it was resolved. It was not a pretty picture! Rabies is rare in horses but horses are susceptible and sensitive to rabies. The disease is a killer.

Without a cure, rabies prevention becomes crucial. Vaccination of companion animals against rabies cannot be overemphasized. It is important to know, however, that a rabies vaccination does not give 100% protection. Consider these points in regards to vaccination:

  • The incidence of rabies in both wild and domestic animals is on the rise.

  • It is not uncommon for pastured or stalled horses to be unknowingly exposed to wildlife.

  • Most exposures are not noticed and most bite wounds are not found.

  • There is significant and serious potential for human exposure from an infected animal.

  • Equine rabies cases are invariably fatal.

  • Vaccination of horses against rabies is safe and generally highly protective.

  • In some states if a horse is found to have rabies all humans who have come in contact with that horse have to receive rabies shots. They can be quite painful and carry risks as well.
  • Proven effective in horses and foals age 3-4 months and older.

  • 14-month duration of immunity.

  • 97.7% reaction free.

  • One dose for primary immunization.

How Is Rabies Contracted?

Rabies is usually passed along by a bite from an infected animal. The saliva carries the virus. It takes two to ten weeks for the disease to incubate. In my research I saw that it can actually up to fifteen months.

Increased Risk

  • Pasturing
  • Presence of wild animals
  • Presence of a known rabid animal in the area
  • Horse traveling to areas with frequent rabies cases

Clinical Signs of Rabies in Horses

Rabies can present with a variety of symptoms in horses which makes it difficult to diagnose. Other equine neurological diseases, such as West Nile Virus, Equine Herpes, and Equine Protozoa Myeloencephalitis have many of the same symptoms.

  • Off feed
  • Depression
  • Drooling or salivation (foaming at the mouth)
  • Swallowing problems
  • Very excitable
  • Aggressive
  • Colic
  • Convulsions
  • Paralysis
  • Ataxia
  • Combination of the above symptoms

Death usually occurs three to five days after the onset of clinical signs, but it can also occur in less than one day. After the horse has died a postmortem test is required to give a definitive diagnosis. This test cannot be done while an animal is alive.

Age for Rabies Vaccination

Horses as young as three months of age can be vaccinated with an approved equine rabies vaccine. A yearly booster is required.

AAEP: Vaccinate Horses to Prevent Rabies

"...Modern vaccines are very effective in providing rabies immunity. The American Association of Equine Practitioners has recently listed rabies as one of the 'core vaccines' that should be given to all horses. Current recommendations are to begin immunization when a foal reaches 6 months of age, then follow with a booster dose in four to six weeks. Horses should then receive boosters at annual intervals starting at 10 to 12 months of age. Broodmares should be vaccinated four to six weeks prior to their delivery dates. Most state health departments mandate that the vaccine be given by a licensed veterinarian who will keep detailed records on the vaccination history of the horse."

Newer DNA vaccines that are now used in horses for West Nile disease, and have been studied for use in equine rabies, may hold promise for better protection in the near future against rabies.

For More Information:

Rabies Factsheets/theHorse

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