What Horse Owners Should Know About West Nile Virus
What is West Nile encephalitis?
West Nile encephalitis describes an inflammation of the central nervous system, which is caused by infection with West Nile Virus. Prior to 1999 West Nile Virus was found only in Africa, Eastern Europe, and West Asia. In August of 1999 it was identified in the United States.
How do people or animals become infected with West Nile Virus?
People and animals can become infected from the bite of certain kinds of mosquitoes that are infected with the virus. Mosquitoes may pick up the virus when they bite, or take a blood meal, from wild birds that are infected with West Nile Virus. Those mosquitoes may then transmit the virus to people and other animals when biting to take a blood meal. Infection occurs primarily in the late summer or early fall in the northeast and Mid Atlantic regions.
Does infection always lead to illness?
Infection with West Nile Virus does not always lead to signs of illness in people or animals. Horses appear to be a species that is susceptible to infection with the virus. In horses that do become clinically ill, the virus infects the central nervous system and may cause symptoms of encephalitis. Clinical signs of encephalitis in horses may include a general loss of appetite and depression, in addition to any combination of the following signs:
It is important to note that not all horses with clinical signs of encephalitis have West Nile encephalitis. Certain other diseases can cause a horse to have symptoms similar to those resulting from infection with West Nile Virus. If you are concerned that your horse may be exhibiting signs of encephalitis, please contact your veterinarian. Laboratory tests are necessary to confirm a diagnosis.
Is treatment available for West Nile encephalitis in horses?
There is no specific treatment for West Nile encephalitis in horses. Supportive veterinary care is recommended. It is important to diagnose WNV because infection is an indication that mosquitoes carrying the virus are in the area and need to be eliminated.
How many horses have been affected by West Nile Virus?
In 1999, approximately 25 horses became ill from infection with West Nile Virus. In 2000, there were 60 documented clinical cases of infection. Approximately 60% of horses that actually showed signs of illness in 1999 and 2000 recovered from the infection. Others were euthanized or died as a result of infection. Many more horses were infected without showing any clinical symptoms of disease. In 2001, there were 159 documented clinical cases of infection.
Is a vaccine available to protect against infection with West Nile Virus?
A WNV vaccine for horses is now available. It has recently been approved for marketing, on a conditional license, which means that the efficacy of the vaccine will be studied for a year. Because it is impossible to distinguish between vaccinated and naturally infected horses with current testing methods, it is important that vaccination records be kept updated for each horse that receives the vaccine. Horses vaccinated against Eastern, Western, and Venezuelan equine encephalitis are not protected against infection with West Nile Virus.
How can I protect my horse against infection with West Nile Virus?
Vaccination of horses is not a guarantee of protection against infection, and does not offer any protection for other animals or people. The best method of prevention of infection with West Nile Virus for people and animals is to reduce the risk of exposure to the mosquitoes that may carry the virus. Reducing the risk involves eliminating mosquito breeding sites to reduce the number of hatching mosquitoes, and to reduce exposure to adult mosquitoes. Mosquitoes breed in stagnant water, so reduction of breeding sites involves eliminating stagnant water sources. To reduce the number of mosquito breeding sites:
Additional steps can be taken to reduce the likelihood of exposure of horses to adult mosquitoes:
For help in assessing mosquito exposure risks on your property and for suggested control practices, please contact your county extension office, county Department of Environmental Protection, county Department of Health, or mosquito and pest control company.
Can a horse infected with West Nile Virus infect other horses?
There is no evidence that infected horses can transmit the virus to other animals, people, or mosquitoes. Only a wild bird-mosquito transmission cycle has been proven as a means of transmitting West Nile Virus.
Can ticks spread West Nile Virus?
Research is ongoing within the public health community to determine the role ticks play in the vectoring of West Nile virus. Scientists have confirmed ticks become infected with West Nile virus and may be able to amplify the disease within the avian community. Some researchers have also suggested that the ticks pass West Nile virus between generations and that is how the disease survives the winter in Pennsylvania. The Department will monitor this research closely to see what role ticks may play, if any, in the West Nile virus cycle.
Where can I get more information about West Nile Virus?
For more information: