Earlier this month, veterinarians and state officials in three Florida counties (Columbia, Bradford, and Hillsborough) publicly announced they were dealing with a small outbreak of strangles, a contagious bacterial infection of the equine upper respiratory tract characterized by swollen lymph nodes. Strangles is a relatively common communicable disease, but in this case, alerts issued via the Equine Disease Communication Center indicated the outbreak's origin was a pen at a horse sale facility in Bastrop, La.
Though the specific location was unnamed in the alerts (it was not the well-known Bastrop Kill Pen, according to the information provided), the distributor's set-up is similar to many other so-called “kill pens” these days: facility operators or independent organizations offer horses destined for the slaughter pipeline for “bail” by rescues or private owners in exchange for a fee which is often higher than fair market value on the animal. When the money is paid, individuals may either own the horse or foster it until a permanent place can be found, and since social media is global, that means horses may leave such pens and travel many states away.
Dr. Angela Pelzel-McCluskey, equine epidemiologist with the United States Department of Agriculture/Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said that type of large-scale movement of horses is a serious biosecurity concern for people who foster or purchase the animals – not just for strangles, but other communicable diseases.
“I think there's always going to be an infectious disease exposure in these types of animals, so it's a buyer-beware situation,” said Pelzel-McCluskey. “People are going to have to be prepared that if they're going to rescue horses from this pathway, they're probably going to end up paying more money to get it out of hoc, and they're going to have additional veterinary care that needs to be done for the animal.”
Horses come to kill auctions in a variety of health conditions. Some end up in a kill pen after a decade on the back 40 acres of an owner's farm and may not have seen a vaccine or Coggins test in years. They may be undetected carriers of various respiratory bugs or more serious communicable diseases like strangles or EHV-1. Others may be days removed from a show or racing operation where they received routine care, but without any record of their health history or identity.
“In the case of a slaughter channel, 'Poof,'” she said. “They're an anonymous horse. I think that would be a real challenge, if we had to do epidemiology and trace-back on one of those horses.”
In Pelzel-McCluskey's experience, handlers at these pens make the most profit if they can turn a horse around quickly, whether for “bail” or to a kill buyer, which means they're often handling one horse after another and housing them in mixed pens together. To her knowledge, none of the pens has procedures in place to disinfect fencing or buckets between groups of horses. When the animals travel in trailer loads to and from a pen, it's unlikely the trailers are disinfected between loads.
“Certainly I don't know of any slaughter buyers who have any routine cleaning and disinfection,” she said. “When we see their conveyances, they're required to have the manure cleaned out and things like that, but we don't have any requirement for them to do a chemical cleaning of the conveyance. That would be another cost to them, and they make their money off limiting overhead costs.”
Different pathogens can live outside a horse's body for varying lengths of time on human hands and equipment, so some probably die if a trailer wall or corral is unused for long enough, but others may not.
The Equine Disease Communication Center distributes information about communicable diseases according to each state's rules about which diseases are “reportable.” Reportable diseases are those requiring a veterinarian to submit information about a case to their state veterinarian or animal health office for tracking purposes. Florida is one of relatively few states where strangles is reportable, which means the current outbreak could be more widespread than the public realizes. Pelzel-McCluskey points out the horses in the three Florida counties traveled through other states themselves and may have trailered alongside others who may have been unloaded in states where the disease isn't reportable.
The best way for rescuers of horses from pens like these to deal with the risk is to take biosecurity precautions assuming the arriving horse is ill. Keep the new horse separated from your existing herd for at least 30 days, and ensure buckets, grooming tools, and other items are not shared between the new and old horses. Handle the new horse last of all, so pathogens aren't transmitted on your clothes or boots, and if possible, keep a separate set of outer clothing you wear only around the new horse. Monitor both new and existing horses for signs of illness such as a lack of appetite, listlessness, and fever, and alert a veterinarian as soon as possible if you see clinical signs pop up. Have your vet create a program of booster shots in case the horse has not been recently vaccinated.
One other area many people forget about: their own trailer. If you used your own truck and trailer to bring the new horse home, be sure to clean and disinfect it before loading up others.
Pelzel-McCluskey said it's impossible to quantify the relative risk a kill pen rescue will arrive with a communicable disease as compared to one arriving from another barn or conventional sale facility; health officials can't be sure how many cases go unreported in the first place, preventing them from knowing what the rate of illness may be.
Experienced horse people know there is supposed to be a system in place preventing sick horses from traveling and mixing with other groups. Horses are not legally supposed to travel across state lines without a Coggins form indicating whether they are positive or negative for Equine Infectious Anemia, and a health certificate demonstrating they exhibit no sign of illness before travel. Pelzel-McCluskey said the USDA has been alerted within the last year that horses leaving kill pens may be doing so with forged, stolen, or falsified paperwork. Another way owners can help reduce the spread of illness: let the local, state, and federal authorities know when a horse arrives as a kill pen rescue with paperwork indicating they were healthy at the time of departure when it's likely they were not.
“One of our concerns with this type of environment is these kill buyers may have been finding or employing veterinarians that are not actually going out and visually inspecting the horses, which would explain why you have horses with these obvious [strangles] abscesses,” she said of the Florida horses with full-blown illness days after leaving a kill pen. “They're not forming overnight as the horse is transiting. Obviously, they would have had a fever and not been eating well [before that].”
Ultimately, the contagious disease issue is unlikely to be eliminated when it comes to high-traffic horse sales like the kill pens. Pelzel-McCluskey says there is simply too much movement and too many horses from different health backgrounds to eliminate the risk. That's why purchasers of horses in need from these types of situations need to know what they're getting into.
“These are unvaccinated horses, so they could be exposed to WNV, EEE, tetanus, rabies, things we don't think about very often,” she said. “I do worry that it's a population that's under-vaccinated, undernourished, heavily exposed, heavily traveled and is not really up to the challenge of dealing with infectious disease, but they are up to the challenge of spreading it.”
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