Hurricanes Harvey and Irma flooded two of the largest horse populations in the United States. Texas has a million horses and Florida has a half-million. During the hurricanes, the major threat to these animals was flying debris, but in their aftermath, horses struggled through floodwater to survive.
Floodwater is particularly hazardous because of the level of pollutants it carries. Not only does it harbor bacteria from sewage and other sources, but it also contains harmful chemicals from flooded industrial facilities and breached storage areas on farms.
“I've been through a lot of floods,” said Dr. William Moyer, who in 2015 retired from Texas A&M University after a 22-year career as a professor and head of the Large Animal Clinical Sciences Department. He still helps out as a member of TAMU's Veterinary Emergency Team, which he helped establish during Hurricane Rita in 2005. The unit is the largest and most sophisticated veterinary medical disaster-response team in the country.
Moyer said skin problems are common in horses standing in floodwater. Water leaches natural oils and other protective factors from the skin, making it easier for pollutants to invade. Usually these horses don't suffer from a specific skin disease with a name, he said, but from exposure to a variety of irritants, chemicals, and bacteria that can have a deleterious effect, depending on the concentration.
“If you look at some of these refineries, there are cattle or horses grazing on the other side of the fence,” he said. “But with the exception of one chemical plant incident during Harvey, I don't think there have been any toxic spills.”
Moyer said the most important thing is to get the horse somewhere it can dry off and examine it closely to find and treat any open wounds, even small ones. He said to pay particular attention to the pasterns and the backside of the fetlocks, where the feather might hide a wound.
“You might see a little cut that you normally wouldn't even treat,” he said. “But then two days later the leg is blown up all the way up to the horse's chest because the contamination is such that just a nick potentially becomes a significant problem.
“Clean it up with soap and water or some kind of effective disinfectant,” he said.
Clean water in disaster areas usually is scarce, but if a safe water supply via a hose is available, Moyer said to bathe the horse in mild detergent, such as Dawn dish soap, to wash off contamination from the floodwater.
If possible, horsemen should try to find out the status of the tetanus vaccination of any horse pulled from floodwater and boost it, if needed.
Dick Fanguy is a former president of the American Farrier's Association who lives near Baton Rouge, La. Though his area was spared from flooding this time around, he took care of many horses during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, triaging their foot wounds and passing them on to veterinary students for further care.
“These horses are going to come out of that water and their feet are going to be extremely soft,” he said.
Soft hooves are more easily penetrated when they step on foreign objects. The hazards depend on the area where a horse is found. In urban areas, debris from damaged buildings is under the water, whereas horses in rural areas will be exposed to fewer hazards.
“I pulled so many foreign objects out of soles that it was ridiculous,” Fanguy said. “We rescued two horses from New Orleans, and I pulled roofing nails and glass out of their feet. But horses that were in a rural setting just came in with wet, soaked feet. It was just a matter of putting them in a dry stall and letting nature do what nature does.”
Puncture wounds were the priority because of the danger from pollution in the floodwater. For these, Fanguy immediately disinfected the wound with a surgical scrub, debrided it, packed it with a mixture of Epsom salt and povidone iodine (Betadine), and wrapped the foot.
“My experience is that a hoof is a very resilient thing and will come out all right,” he said.
One of the tragedies in the wake of disasters is that many horses (and other animals) are never reunited with their owners because they bear no identification. Moyer, a strong proponent of microchipping, hopes these hurricanes will be a wake-up call for owners to have their animals microchipped.
Louisiana requires all horses to be microchipped, branded, or tattooed to receive their regular Coggins paperwork. In the aftermath of Katrina and Rita, the majority of recovered horses carried microchips. The reunion of horses with their owners was delayed however, when rescue workers found that many chips did not have up-to-date contact information for owners. Updating chip information and conventional forms of identification such as braiding tags into a horse's mane ahead of a disaster can help get them home later.
Editor's note: An earlier note stating all but one of 364 recovered horses being reunited with their owners thanks to microchips has been removed. The correct figure is closer to 90 percent of recovered horses. The article has been updated to reflect the challenges Louisiana rescue workers faced when looking for up-to-date contact information through microchips.
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