A natural approach to protecting horses against infectious disease begins with rethinking old standbys, boosting the immune system at its most basic level and embracing the idea that ‘less can be more.’
The goal of vaccinating horses is to prime the immune system with an agent, called an immunogen, that carries either a live, weakened or killed form of a disease. Introducing the disease to the body in a controlled situation creates antibodies in the blood, so if the illness is naturally contracted, the system already knows how to fight it. Of course, injecting anything into an animal’s bloodstream, especially disease carrying cells, doesn’t come without risk; so more and more horse owners are considering one of several alternatives to the conventional vaccination schedule.
Serologic or titer testing can help determine antibodies that are lacking. A titer test is a blood panel that indicates how much of an active, disease-fighting antibody is in the blood. If a titer test shows little or no response to a specific disease, the horse may not be able to defend itself against the disease and it may be necessary to consider vaccinating. However, little research has been done to determine just how much of a titer response suggests that the horse is protected. Another variable is that cells within the body can elicit their own immune response, called cellular immunity. Cellular immunity cannot be measured, but anecdotal evidence shows that it can provide protection against contagious diseases as well. Most veterinarians can carry out a titer test, but be forewarned that many are reluctant to vaccinate based on the results of the tests because the results are so variable, and pharmaceutical companies don’t support the practice.
Homeopathic nosodes are deemed to be effective because they have actually prevented contraction of a disease; allopathic vaccines are deemed to be effective only because they create an increase in antibodies. So, if the OUTCOME of using a product is more important than just the EFFECT of using a product, nosodes may be for you. Holistic veterinarians sometimes encourage the use of nosodes as an alternative to traditional vaccines. Nosodes are homeopathic remedies made from the specific products of a particular disease or from diseased tissues themselves. The samples are prepared by dramatically diluting them and neutralizing the components, thereby eliminating any potential long-term effects, while still triggering the immune system. Nosodes are not injected into the horse, but are most often placed against the gum or cheek where they are absorbed through the protective mucous membranes; not unlike how most infectious diseases are naturally contracted. Nosodes are available for most communicable diseases through holistic animal practitioners and veterinarians and are best used with their guidance.
CONSIDER INDIVIDUAL RISKS
The American Veterinary Medical Association is cautiously admitting that perhaps vaccinations shouldn’t be recommended with the wide brush stroke of the past, but rather with prudence and careful evaluation of the risks and benefits. Talk with your veterinarian about vaccinating only against diseases that pose a real threat to your horse. Analyzing the risks and vaccinating accordingly is another less invasive strategy to protect against contagious disease.
• If a horse is nowhere near a body of water, it may not be necessary to vaccinate against Potomac Horse Fever
• A horse in the mosquito free deserts of Arizona probably needn’t be vaccinated against West Nile.
• The Rhino vaccine is effective against Equine Herpesvirus (EHV-1 and EHV-4) which can cause abortion in pregnant mares, but are otherwise simply respiratory illnesses that are typically treated successfully with supportive care.
• Neurotopic EHV-1 is a devastating mutation of the rhino virus that attacks the central nervous system but it is not prevented by the use of any vaccine.
• Strangles is a bacterial disease spread by direct contact; a horse living in a closed herd is highly unlikely to contract the disease, just as the same horse is unlikely to contract the flu virus, reducing the need for that vaccine as well.
THE LAW OF INFINITESIMALS
Homeopathic medicine operates on the principal that “like heals like.” This saying means that a health condition can be cured by treating it with products that simulate the symptoms of the condition, thereby encouraging the body to care for itself. Homeopathic products follow another holistic law as well: The Law of Infinitesimals. In opposition to traditional medicine, The Law of Infinitesimals states that the lower the dose of a curative, the more effective it is because it doesn’t overwhelm the body and scramble or distort its own healing abilities.
KNOW THE SIDE-EFFECTS
Generally, horses respond well to vaccines, with the most common adverse reactions being mild and short-lived. A low-grade temperature, sluggishness, reduced appetite and regional muscle soreness are all common and can be alleviated with holistic care including hand-walking, gentle massage and homeopathic curatives.
Serious reactions requiring immediate medical attention include:
• difficulty breathing
• swelling of the head or limbs
• extreme anxiety
Whether your choice is to use nosodes or to limit vaccinations using titer tests or perceived risk as a guide, the key to disease protection is having a healthy horse with a robust immune system. The roots of the immune system lie in the gastro-intestinal tract, making complete nutrition, fed in an easily digestible manner, critical to good health. Avoiding stress (the worst enemy of the GI tract and the immune system) by providing a comfortable living arrangement and selecting a riding discipline that your horse enjoys also contributes to his well-being. A natural approach to horse care with healthy, unadulterated feeds, fresh clean water and the sense of well-being that comes from being part of a herd ultimately protects your horse from disease at the most basic level.
It is interesting that every-day exposure to the minor viral and bacterial germs that are part of living in a social group, as horses are designed to do, quite likely provides the greatest protection against more virulent contagious diseases. Demonstrating once again that less is indeed more.
A frequent contributor to Holistic Horse, Brenda Thoma is a freelance writer with publishing credits in a variety of areas. Horse health assignments are her most rewarding. Brenda competes in dressage with Cricket, her horse partner of more than 15 years, and supports her daughter with her 3-Day Event horse Citi Lights. Always interested in what lies beneath the exterior of horses and people, Brenda is interested in alternative health therapies and psychology, and enjoys yoga and distance running. Brenda and her husband David live in Minnesota with their son Grant and daughter Lauren.