No reported incidences of horses getting the SARS-CoV 2 virus.
“Unprecedented” seems an understatement when describing the wide-ranging impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. To get a handle on some of those impacts and perspectives in our regional horse world, California Riding Magazine editor Kim F Miller checked in with Phoebe A Smith, DVM, of Rivera Equine Internal Medicine & Consulting in the Santa Ynez Valley.
Kim: What does this look like from your perspective as an equine veterinarian?
Dr. Smith: As large animal vets, it falls into the context of herd immunity, in which we try to protect the vulnerable by minimizing the disease in the herd. So, conceptually, this is all very familiar. It’s what we do with horses when there is a contagious disease on a farm or showground. We lock down, nobody in, nobody out. Much of the regular public has not had to think like this in recent history.
Kim: Is there a risk of transmission between horses and infected people?
Dr. Smith: Multiple species have different forms of coronavirus. But the one that causes the current disease, SARS-CoV-2, is new, so there is not a lot known about it in human medicine yet. At this point, there is no evidence that horses are part of the transmission process in any direct way. You could make a crazy link through a “fomite,” an inanimate object capable of transmitting an infectious organism. For example, say an infected person sneezed on your horse’s coat, and somebody else put their hand in that same spot, then touched their face and became infected.
As to whether horses can get it, we don’t believe so. There is rapid work being done trying to figure out what the virus does and who it can affect. I am getting that question frequently from clients, but there are no reported incidences of horses getting the SARS-CoV 2 virus.
Kim: How concerned are your clients about COVID-19 and their horses?
Dr. Smith: Completely coincidentally, there are some cases of equine coronavirus in our region currently. The equine coronavirus is a gastrointestinal-borne condition which presents as GI disturbance, colic, diarrhea, fever, or any combination of these clinical signs. This is caused by equine coronavirus, which is well-typed and something that we are familiar with. In most cases, we are able to treat equine coronavirus at the farm with supportive care. Less commonly, intensive care may be required for more severely affected cases.
Most horses recover from equine coronavirus within days of falling ill. The virus can be transmitted in manure, so the treatment should include isolation.
So, the biggest concern is when I have to tell a client that their horse has coronavirus. I immediately say, ‘But wait…it’s not that coronavirus!” Again, this current regional incidence of equine coronavirus is completely coincidental with COVID-19, but it is causing some confusion.
Kim: Are there helpful take-aways for horse owners and care providers?
Dr. Smith: Yes, the principles of how respiratory viruses are spread are valuable lessons for animal health as well as human health. There is a lot of talk about how COVID-19 is spread through respiratory secretions — coughing or sneezing. The virus also spreads through fomites, when those secretions get onto something that another touches. Think about how many things a horse touches with its nose to ask “Hey, what’s that?”
Because everyone has had to think about this form of transmission in such a detailed fashion, it could improve awareness of how contagions travel and that should improve a farm’s ability to control disease spread in the future.
Kim: Any general advice to horse owners regarding COVID-19?
Dr. Smith: We all want to spend time with our horses and you should continue to unless you are sick with the coronavirus or have symptoms that indicate you might be infected. And this is only because your horse could accidentally become a fomite if you coughed or sneezed on his blanket, or somewhere else, that another person might touch. They are just now working out how long the virus survives on different surface types.
(The National Institutes of Health announced on March 17 these finding regarding the virus’ stability on various surfaces: in aerosols for 3 hours; on copper, up to 4 hours; on cardboard, up to 24 hours; and up to two and three days on plastic and stainless steel.)
Kim: What about advice for those who can’t get to their horse because of self-imposed or mandatory “shelter in place” restrictions.
Dr. Smith: I think everyone understands that horses still need to get out and get exercise and are working with barn managers to find efficient ways to do that. I hate to see horses standing around all day in their stalls. Activity is important to keeping horses healthy, which will minimize the number of vet visits and minimize the general downstream effects of all of this.
Kim: Any suggestions for those who can safely spend time with their horses, and have extra time because of show cancellations or postponements?
Dr. Smith: It’s the same concept as what we are working on for ourselves and our families: what do we want to work on that we don’t normally have time for? Maybe it’s ground manners or getting over that fear of needles.
Some of my clients are using this break to give their horses extra rest. And some of my upper level rider clients are having to re-think how they are conditioning and preparing their horses, especially those with Olympic plans and hopes. I think we will see there is a lot of coordination in finding ways to allow them to continue preparation without risking anybody’s health.
Kim: Final thoughts?
Dr. Smith: It will be interesting to see how this shapes our future. On the horse and horse owner side, I think there will be truly lasting benefits in people having more familiarity with disease control and response to disease outbreaks.