The first signs we had of any ailment were the totally normal signs of a cold or simple ailment: fever (102.5-104), loss of appetite, mild lethargy, and slightly stocked up legs. These were noticed in two horses on April 8.
The vet recommended bute for the fever, SMZ (antibiotics) for the legs and any other secondary bacterial infection, figuring it was a typical viral flu. Over the next two days, nine more horses exhibited the same symptoms, nothing any worse. Almost all fevers responded immediately to bute.
Day 4 (April 11): Two horses found down in their stalls, unable to get up. One horse had had a slight fever the day before; the other had exhibited no signs of illness at all. Both horses were flat on their sides, lifting their heads and banging them down, obviously in distress.
After many questions about the horses who were sick earlier in the week and about these two in particular, the vet decided it was most likely the neurologic variety of rhinopneumonitis EHV-1, which apparently can strike even horses who are vaccinated. It is a herpes virus, and as with all viruses, you cannot treat the virus. It just has to run its course and the immune system deals with it or not.
We learned over the next day or two that you can relieve some of the symptoms, such as fever with bute, or in more stricken horses, banamine, and when they start to show neurologic signs, you put them on IV DMSO and saline, steroids, and banamine to reduce swelling around the spinal cord. The two horses who were down were so involved that even though they were treated and nursed through the day, by Thursday night (Day 5) it was obvious that they were regressing and suffering, so they were put down.
Now we were really in it.
Many of our boarders came out and just stayed 24 hours for the next couple of days, as did our staff. Even though it seemed silly to sit and stare at your seemingly-well horse, we have found that early detection of minute neurologic symptoms does make a difference in staving off the disease to a degree.
Friday, April 13 (Day 6), we had four horses with fevers, not neurologic, treated with bute. One horse who had had a fever two days earlier became neurologic that afternoon, and another followed her, so now we had two more cases of very sick horses.
Typical signs of becoming neurologic are not stepping sideways well when turned on a small circle in hand, not backing up well, not resisting as a normal horse would when walked in a straight line with a person next to them pulling hard sideways on the tail. Other symptoms that we saw later were more of an encephalitic nature, i.e., seizure-like moments, total disorientation and confusion. Some of the episodes were somewhat violent in nature, requiring a mild sedative. (We didn't learn all that right away; it took a lot of different experiences!)
One of the two very sick horses went down at 11:00 p.m. Friday, but seemed mentally alert. Her owner, a high school senior, stayed with her for the next 24 hours, holding her head in her lap, helping her be comfortable, soothing her when she got scared. It was heart-wrenching. We all hoped this one would get up (she was being treated as described earlier), but we all knew deep down she probably wouldn't.
While all that is going on (with at least 15 people in the barn all night), the other sick horse goes down, violently struggles to get up, but can't. Two of the guys here thought if she could be on her other side, she looked stronger on that leg, so they sedated her slightly and turned her over, let her rest, and when she was ready, helped her by pulling, pushing, prodding and even yelling.
They did that with her nine times over the next 18 hours or so. That horse had to be catheterized and have rectals to plop, since the partial paralysis affected her ability to do that. But she never stopped eating! She would crash down (we figure she was not only sick but plain exhausted), get sedated, be rolled over, and start to munch hay!
There were small improvements daily until her catheter came out, she plopped on her own, and she stayed up for two days without crashing down.
As for the other horses who had a fever, some have gotten mildly neurologic and not gone down. We are now REALLY EXPERT at noticing neurologic changes, so we get them on medication early. It does not help to just put them on anti-inflammatories because if they are not neurologic, it will not prevent that from happening, and you need the power of them at the moment they start to be neurologic, so you watch and wait.
Since Saturday, April 14, we've had 11 other horses with neurologic symptoms, only one of whom went down fast and had to be put down.
Seeing horses, all loved by someone, go down, suffer, and have to be put down, is very sobering. Our vets have been unbelievably good. The vets at Quakertown Vet Clinic (Dr. Randy Bimes, Dr. Erin Miller, and Dr. Julia Allerton) come as soon as they can when we call, they stay forever and they answer questions until they must be sick of us! We look like a teaching class at a hospital, with six to 15 people following the vet around the barn, asking questions the whole time.
So, how did we get it? No one knows. Horses can carry the latent virus and shed it under great stress. In the incubation period (which varies depending on whom you ask or what you read) seems to be two days to two weeks. We did get two new boarders from out of state, who were not sick, did not come from barns with sickness, and who were vaccinated 10 days or so prior to coming here. We also had a small dressage show, held outside. Even though rhinopneumonitis is an airborne virus, it is mostly spread by nose-to-nose contact or nose-to-person-to-horse contact. We wash our hands a lot and change clothes between barns, spray our boots with bleach solution, and don't share things among hoses. The stalls are being disinfected with bleach solution as horses die. We will do the whole barn when it is over.
Though most people understand that we are dealing with this in a safe manner and trying very hard not to allow it to spread, there are some who are already labeling our barn as "bad" and I do fear our re-entry in equine society might be fraught with rumors. We canceled our largest event of the year (horse trials) and a hunter and western show. We are teaching no lessons. No horses are being ridden in case they are incubating the virus so as not to stress them. Once we have the last case, whenever that is, we will be self-quarantined for a minimum of a month, perhaps two.
This experience has shown all of us a lot about ourselves and about the others working for the horses. The overriding care for the horse, no matter whose it is, is amazing.
A final word: Vaccinated horses can get this. Notice every little symptom, call your vet as soon as you think you notice anything, be as paranoid as you want to be! Watch your horses carefully once they start to show any symptoms. And be kind to other barns who have the bad luck to be stricken at random with this deadly disease.
Francis Gradel with his sick horse, who was on IV DMSO fluids at this point. "Francis spent hours like this plus helped us as needed," Jane Cory said.
JANE CORY owns and operates Pleasant Hollow Farm in Cooperstown, PA. A total of four mares died as a result of the virus strike. Approximately 20 horses were symptomatic from the virus. All treatment of symptomatic horses ended in May. The barn was never put into mandatory quarantine but Jane did cancel all lessons, as well as a recognized horse trial and a Penn Jersey horse show. Jane estimates a $15,000.00 loss