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Foot and Mouth Disease in Horses

By: Dr. Melissa Mazan

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Foot and Mouth: The News From Great Britain

  • The Cheltenham Gold Cup – canceled
  • Badminton – canceled or postponed
  • Crufts - postponed
  • Foxhunting meets – canceled

    This is the least of the problems. Piles of animals are burning, valuable bloodlines have been lost. All the National Forests closed, river ways closed, agriculture of all kinds from Great Britain is shunned. Worse yet – it may be spreading.

    Foot and Mouth Disease Facts

  • What is causing this devastation? Foot and Mouth Disease, or FMD.

  • Who is affected by FMD? FMD is a highly contagious virus, that affects only cloven-hooved animals. That means that cows, sheep, goats, llamas and pigs are all susceptible to this virus, but horses are not affected by FMD.

  • Why have equine events throughout Great Britain been canceled or postponed? FMD is caused by a virus that is extremely resistant to environmental effects such as drying. FMD virus can survive on the tires of trucks, on people's boots and clothing, on a veterinarian's stethoscope, or on the feet or hair coat of a horse. All that is necessary is that these people, animals, or objects have been exposed to the virus – say, by the sneeze or cough of an affected animal, or by casual contact with someone or something, even the ground, that has been exposed to the virus. An affected animal may cough or sneeze, and the viral particles can be carried on the wind for up to 50 miles!

  • Although people and horses do not become infected by the virus, the virus can survive in our respiratory tracts for up to 24 hours – thus letting us be the unwitting carriers of virus even if we have been scrupulous about changing our clothing and boots. The virus has been documented to survive in frozen meat for years, and can also persist in animal hides – for example, in shoes, handbags and luggage. FMD is not affected by many ordinary disinfectants or drying – things that kill many other viruses. You can imagine that an outbreak is a veterinarian's nightmare.

  • What are the signs of Foot and Mouth Disease? Affected animals are often depressed and lose their appetites. They will have a fever, at least initially. They often have clear nasal discharge, and are very lame. If the animals are used for milk production, you will notice that milk production is abruptly decreased. Important clues to look for are animals that are drooling or making excessive motions with their lips – this is because the virus infects the cells of the mucous membranes of the mouth, causing vesicles, or blisters to form. These blisters soon rupture, and large portions of the mucous membranes inside the mouth slough off, leaving the raw, tender tissue beneath. Animals become lame when the same blisters form along the coronary bands, leaving exquisitely painful raw areas where tough tissue once protected the underlying structures. When these blisters form on a milk cow's udder and teats, it is impossible to milk her. The virus may also affect the absorptive layers of the forestomaches of ruminant animals (such as cows, goats, and sheep) – this, combined with lack of appetite, results in rapidly emaciated animals.

  • Why is an outbreak of FMD considered such a disaster? Foot and Mouth Disease does not immediately kill many animals. Indeed, most animals, with good nursing care, will recover from this disease. Rather, FMD wreaks devastation by effectively crippling a nation's food-producing animals. Animals can be left maimed by the bacterial infections, especially of the udder, that set in after the initial viral infection is gone. The animal may be unable to produce milk for an entire season. Beef cattle and swine may become so emaciated that they are culled rather than used for meat production. Thus, although the disease does not immediately kill the affected animals, it can ruin an agricultural nation's economy.

  • Why, then, have so many animals died? The response of nations experiencing an outbreak, such as Great Britain, is to immediately kill all affected animals. As drastic as this response may seem, it is this type of action that has kept the United States free of FMD for many years. The affected country knows that the virus could be lurking in the soil, in meat, or in milk. The goal is to eradicate the disease swiftly and completely, before it becomes endemic (that is, existing at chronic, low levels, all the time).

    Summary

    Foot and Mouth Disease is a highly contagious viral disease that affects cloven-hooved animals, but does NOT affect horses or people. Horses, however, can carry the disease on their hooves, their tack, or equipment used by them. For this reason, equine events in Great Britain, where FMD continues to rage, have largely been canceled. Foot and Mouth Disease causes economic devastation once it enters a country. If you have recently visited Great Britain or any other country plagued by FMD, do your best for our country – comply with all regulations imposed by the United States, and don't try to bring in any meat products or other products that might be infected with FMD. We've been free of FMD for many years – let's try to keep it that way!

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