Horses always feel safest and most content when in the company of others of their kind. But in certain situations, you may need to quarantine a horse – both to protect his own health, and that of the equines around him.
Quarantine, in which a horse is completely separated from contact with other horses, is a smart strategy for limiting the transmission of disease. It’s a good idea when you have a sick horse you need to isolate from his apparently-healthy stallmates, when you have a new arrival to an established herd, or when a horse is imported from another part of the world (so you don’t inadvertently spread non-indigenous diseases).
At its simplest (and least effective) level, quarantine may simply mean putting at least one empty stall between the isolated horse and the rest of the horses on the property. But ideally, a horse in solitary confinement should be housed in a completely separate building.
If you’re bringing a new horse onto your property, one who is apparently healthy, 30 days of physical separation from the rest of your equines should be sufficient to tell you if he is incubating a disease. This timeframe also gives you time to get results back from tests your veterinarian may recommend. For example, you may want to run a fecal check on the new horse to test for worms before you turn him out with your herd. Or if the horse comes without a valid negative Coggins test (the blood test for equine infectious anemia), you’ll want to ensure he’s negative for the antibodies to the virus before you allow him to have contact with your certified-negative animals.
If you’re isolating a sick horse, there are several factors you’ll want to consider. First, how is the disease transmitted? Is it spread through the air, as many respiratory diseases are? If so, over what distance? (Viruses spread more easily over large distances; bacteria are comparatively larger and heavier, and tend not to spread more than a few feet through the air.) Is the disease spread by contact, like the fungal infection ringworm? Can it survive on buckets or brushes, the walls of your horse trailer, or your shoes? Do you have to worry about where you put your manure pile, or where fluids such as urine from the infected horse are draining? Or if it’s spread by insects, which insects are the culprits, and how far do they travel?
All that’s needed to move a horse between the Canada/United States border is a current negative Coggins test, and a general air of good health … but if you’re importing or exporting a horse from anywhere else, then some period of quarantine will almost certainly be required.
Horses being imported from most parts of Europe must conform to USDA regulations by entering the United States through one of four ports of entry, at New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, or Honolulu. They must spend at least 72 hours in quarantine, during which time they are tested for EIA, piroplasmosis (a protozoal blood disease common in Europe), contagious equine metritis, or CEM, and dourine (two sexually-transmitted diseases), and glanders (a bacterial disease, fortunately rare).
When horses are shipped internationally for competitions and then return to their home country, quarantine regulations may be streamlined for the convenience of the competitors and officials. At the 1999 World Championship endurance race in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, for example, horses from North America were housed in one barn, and those from Europe, Africa, and Australasia all had separate facilities. Riders, veterinarians, and crew members involved with the horses were issued color-coded tags, which allowed them entry only to their own barn. On their return to North America, Dubai was able to certify that the endurance horses had not been exposed to any foreign pathogens, making their quarantine on home soil brief and uneventful.
THE QUARANTINE ROUTINE
When you’re setting up a quarantine facility, whether it’s one stall or many, you can limit the spread of infection with these simple strategies:
- Place isolation stalls in a separate building, or, if you can’t do that, locate them at one end of the barn, near the exhaust fans, not near the air intake vents.
- Screen doors and windows, and use insecticidal sprays and traps to cut down on insect movement around the quarantine stalls.
- Use separate feeding, mucking, and grooming equipment, so that nothing is shared between the horses in isolation and those not in quarantine.
- Have a small ‘lip’ on the floor of your stall, at the door, to prevent water and fluids such as urine from flowing in or out.
- Since some infectious organisms are soil-borne, keep a separate set of footwear in the quarantine facility, which you wear only there … or equip the facility with a foot-bath.
- Handle your other horses before you deal with the ones in quarantine, and once you’ve handled them, don’t go back to the non-quarantine barn until you’ve washed all your exposed skin surfaces and changed your clothes. Even better, appoint a separate handler for your quarantined horses – someone who only deals with those horses and never mixes with the general population.
“If you follow all of these precautions,” King says, “you should be pretty secure.” More stringent quarantine situations, such as might be needed to protect a vulnerable horse recovering from a delicate surgery or severe illness, are best handled by university veterinary hospitals. Set-ups there can resemble something out of the Center for Disease Control’s wildest fantasies, with glassed-in stalls, anti-contamination suits, and high-security airlocks to prevent the movement of air from one stall to another.
DEALING WITH SOLITARY CONFINEMENT
Being isolated from other horses is a major cause of frustration in confined horses – so you may find yourself with a very cranky, neurotic patient. Minimizing the amount of stress he experiences while he’s confined may play a pivotal role in his recovery – or (in the case of a horse being quarantined ‘just in case’) in your sanity!
For most confined horses, the first step is to cut back, or eliminate entirely, the grain portion of the diet, and substitute lots and lots of fiber. Providing your horse has an appetite, he can be offered hay free-choice throughout the day; if he’s too weak to cope with hay, try soaked beet pulp, laced with a little molasses, or hay cubes, soaked in water to make them easier to chew.
For the horse who is really moping, consider introducing an other-species babysitter, such as a goat. Misery loves company – but be sure that your babysitter critter isn’t vulnerable to whatever infectious condition your quarantined horse has.
Quarantine is far from an ideal situation for either handler or horse, but dealt with intelligently, it can be made bearable. More importantly, it can be extremely effective in preventing the spread of disease – and that can save you a lot of time, money, and heartache in the long run.