Girl kissing horse
Many an adage honors the bond between horse and rider, who can also share some common – and not so common – health concerns...
Arrhythmia: A horsewoman’s heart weighs nine ounces; a horse’s, nine pounds. While Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University says horses are less likely to suffer from arrhythmia than humans (250,000 human deaths annually), the most common equine arrhythmia causing clinical signs, atrial fibrillation, is not associated with heart disease as much as with natural anatomy and physiology. If a horse is exercise intolerant, or your veterinarian suspects arrhythmia, have an ECG measure heart electrical activity as early treatment can protect heart muscle.
Cauda Equina Syndrome (CES): Never heard of it? You’re not alone. Dr. Sarah Smith and Caudaequina.org say horses and humans share its debilitating effects. Cauda equina refers to neurological signs stemming from damage to the tapered end of the spinal cord and fan-like (hence the syndrome’s name, Horse’s Tail) collection of sacrococcygeal spinal nerve roots. Common equine causes include trauma to the sacral/coccygeal area from falls, backing beneath a door, or pulling the tail to lift a downed horse. Also linked to sorghum/sudan grass toxicity or rabies, signs include tail paralysis/weakness, rectal and bladder paralysis/weakness, and absence of skin sensation of the tail. In people, CES leads to back, leg and buttock pain, and loss of bladder control, from trauma or untreated degenerative disease, like multiple sclerosis.
Endometritis or Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID): This inflammation of the inner lining of the uterus affects females and can lead to infertility. Human symptoms include fever, vaginal bleeding or discharge, and pelvic pain from staphylococcus or streptococcus infection. The “invisible disease” affects up to 15% of broodmares. Ultrasound and endometrial biopsies are twice as accurate at detecting infection as culture swabs. Veterinarians note that immune stimulants are useful treating persistent endometritis, as are corticosteroids. Electroacupuncture is being tested clinically to enhance uterine contractions; the 2011 International Symposium on Equine Reproduction suggested that poor uterine contractility could be due to compromised uterine blood flow in mares that have had several foals.
Equine Strep ( Streptococcus ): When a Hollins University equine student spent senior year in Spain she had an unexpected souvenir: a months-long case of what she thought was tonsillitis. She learned it was Equine Strep, caught from a horse in her care for a few days before leaving for Spain. Streptococcus is a group of bacteria that includes two main species in horses: Streptococcus equi (the cause of strangles) and Streptococcus zooepidemicus (a cause of various infections). Interestingly, not everyone who becomes infected with Equine Strep necessarily has direct or even indirect contact with horses.
Hemorrhoids: Taro Gomi’s bestselling ‘Everyone Poops,’ is right. Snicker if you will, but hemorrhoids are no laughing matter for half the U.S. population who will suffer at some point. "Weak" veins -- leading to hemorrhoids and varicose veins -- may be inherited. Internal and external hemorrhoids are inflammations in muscle tissue near the anus or lower rectum. If internal, inflammation is evident near the anus on the inner wall. Unlike external hemorrhoids, internal hemorrhoids are more difficult to diagnose: if you notice a change in your horse’s habits and blood in the stool, consult a vet immediately. Like people, contributing lifestyle factors include obesity, or diets low in fiber or moisture. Another cause is foaling. One remedy uses sugardine: “Mix sugar with water to make a slurry and rub into hemorrhoids for 30 minutes. After an hour it should reduce their size by 75%. If not gone, then rub in a hemorrhoid cream for 30 minutes. The hemorrhoid should be gone within one to three days and the horse back to its old self.”
Neuroaxonal dystrophy (NAD): The University of California-Davis Center for Equine Health calls NAD the most commonly diagnosed equine neurological disease. It also affects humans, dogs, cats, and sheep. NAD appears inheritable, with reported cases in Quarter Horses, Paints and Appaloosas, and is considered an underlying basis of incoordination in young horses, and a loss of proprioception. Poor utilization of Vitamin E during early development may be a factor; “oxidative stress,” low concentrations of antioxidants and high polyunsaturated lipid levels, has shown to affect central nervous systems in human diseases like Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis.
Pythiosis (swamp cancer/summer sores): First identified in 1901, these infectious, fungal-like organisms have risen dramatically in the last decade and can be found in horses, humans, and hunting or water dogs. Pythiosis starts as a skin irritation and develops into tumor-like lesions and – in horses -- into respiratory, gastrointestinal, or multi-systemic disease. In humans, it spreads to the arteries. Most US cases are found in humid Southern states, particularly Florida (60%) and Texas (25%). An ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) and blood sample can confirm pythiosis, and early detection and antibiotics cure at least 75% of cases; surgical removal of tumors may be necessary, and untreated cases are fatal. Pan American Veterinary Labs (pavlab.com) say an equine immunotherapeutic has been used successfully to treat pythiosis in humans.
Rabies: There has never been a documented case of rabies transmission from horse to human, but 30-60 cases of rabies affect horses annually. April Knudson, DVM, an equine/large animal specialist for Merial, says staying aware of outbreaks and vaccinating is the best protection, and recommends Outbreak-Alert.com’s satellite view and zip code-by-zip code tracking of disease incidences. All Outbreak-Alert data is confirmed by Centers for Disease Control. According to Dr. Knudson, rabies is on the list of “core diseases” the American Association of Equine Practitioners AAEP recommends vaccinating for annually (plus tetanus, Eastern and Western Equine Encephalitis, and West Nile). While the risk of rabies is rare, people should get post-exposure prophylaxis shots after being in contact with an infected horse.
Tourette Syndrome: There are 200,000 cases in humans in the US, and 57 known equine cases. This chronic neurological disorder is characterized by repeated and uncontrolled behaviors, and involuntary vocalizations known as tics. A genetic abnormality affecting brain metabolism of neurotransmitters (chemicals that carry signals from one nerve cell to another), it is named for a French neurologist who described the condition in 1885. A unique aspect is a patient’s fear of framed entrances; in horses, this can translate into refusal to load on a trailer. Coprolalia’s involuntary vocalizations afflict less than 10 percent of human cases; in horses, it expresses itself in self-mutilation prior to sexual maturity, and includes biting at the flank or pectoral areas, kicking, squealing, rubbing, spinning, or rolling. A study in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Vol. 204, indicates horses respond the same to neuroleptic or antihypertensive drugs as humans with TS.
West Nile Virus: From the virus family Flaviviridae , WNV is part of a Japanese encephalitis antigenic complex of viruses found in tropical and temperate regions. It mainly infects birds, but can infect humans, horses, dogs, cats, and other animals through an infected mosquito’s bite. Through vaccination, you can minimize your horse’s risk of contracting West Nile Virus. A fast-acting vaccine, released in 2009, provides immunity after a primary two-dose series, and annually thereafter. Currently no WNV vaccine exists for humans.
We can always expand our empathy for one another’s challenges as we ride a bridle path to good health together.
L.A. Pomeroy is an award-winning (2011, 2010 AHP Freelance Writer Equine-related Journalism Print or Online, 2008 AHP Feature finalist) writer, columnist, publicist, and contributing editor dedicated to the equestrian lifestyle in the modern world. She can be found on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.