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Vets, rodeo organizers reckon with equine virus

By: Jordan Ross

Posted: 07/31/2017 9:00 AM

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Dr. Brad Lage of Cedar Ridge Veterinary Service performs a check-up on a quarter-horse named Watch at a property near Marchand on Tuesday afternoon. Lage, along with the respective organizers of the upcoming Richer Rough Stock Rodeo and Hanover Ag Fair, are asking rodeo entrants to get their horses tested for equine infectious anemia as a precautionary measure.

JORDAN ROSS | THE CARILLON Enlarge Image

Dr. Brad Lage of Cedar Ridge Veterinary Service performs a check-up on a quarter-horse named Watch at a property near Marchand on Tuesday afternoon. Lage, along with the respective organizers of the upcoming Richer Rough Stock Rodeo and Hanover Ag Fair, are asking rodeo entrants to get their horses tested for equine infectious anemia as a precautionary measure.

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Equine infectious anemia, a virus transmitted by biting flies and colloquially known as "swamp fever," has caused apprehension among some horse owners this year, though a local veterinarian and organizers for two upcoming rodeos say precautions, not cancellations, are in order.

"Nobody’s taking this lightly," said Patrick Stolwyk, president of the Richer Rough Stock Rodeo, which takes place Aug. 11-13. Organizers there have decided to make proof of a negative Coggins test result mandatory for all horses entering the rodeo grounds. The Heartland Rodeo Association, which oversees the event, is further requiring horses tested before May 28 be re-tested, a representative said.

The blood test, administered on site by a veterinarian, costs between $70 and $100 per horse, but provides peace of mind, Stolwyk explained. A standardized approach is needed given that local rodeos often draw entrants from other provinces, he said.

"The rodeos that aren’t having it done, their entries have dropped," he observed. By contrast, no Richer entrants have pulled out, Stolwyk said, adding, "We’ve got nothing but positive feedback because we’re enforcing these rules."

Ahead of the Hanover Ag Fair in Grunthal Aug. 17-20, Hanover Ag Society president Curtis Dawydiuk said proof of a negative Coggins test result will be mandatory for all incoming horses, though the board opted to not impose a deadline for re-testing on top of the test’s normal six-month expiry. One infected horse was present at the society’s spring rodeo in late May, according to a Facebook post from organizers.

The approaches in Richer and Grunthal follow the cancellation of the Marchand Ranch Rodeo last weekend. In a July 18 Facebook post, organizers explained a new directive from the Manitoba Ranch Rodeo Association (MRRA) making Coggins tests mandatory was announced less than one week before the start of the rodeo, leaving too little time to ensure all horses were tested.

MRRA president Jason Zuk said the board voted on the matter on July 16, and called the cancellation of Marchand’s rodeo "disappointing." Dr. Brad Lage, a local equine veterinarian, said test results typically arrive in two to three business days, though he acknowledged a greater volume of tests are being done this year. Most blood samples are processed at a lab in Saskatoon, Lage explained, though according to Zuk, rush results are sometimes possible.

Statistics from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), which requires all suspected cases to be reported, give a glimpse into the prevalence of the virus in Manitoba. On June 9, three infected animals were found in the RM of St Clements, and on June 23, two were found in the RM of Armstrong. While Lage said one horse in the RM of Hanover tested positive, the animal originated elsewhere. The virus continues to be detected in northern parts of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, the CFIA data showed.

On Tuesday, Lage said the province’s Chief Veterinary Office informed the veterinary community that no new cases had been found since July 14. A total of 2,400 Manitoba horses have been tested this year, with only 13 positive results—an occurrence rate of 0.5 percent. To date, Lage himself has not dealt with any clinical cases. Interprovincial control programs in place for years continue to be effective, he said.

Seeking to quell misinformation about the virus, Lage delved into its transmission, symptoms, and treatment. The virus attacks the red blood cells and immune systems in horses, donkeys, and mules, leaving them vulnerable to infections. It poses no health risk to humas and non-equine livestock.

Horseflies and deerflies transmit the virus, though houseflies and mosquitoes do not, Lage said. The virus can also be transmitted during breeding and pregnancy. While infection is for life, a horse may not test positive for up to six weeks—the time it takes for a detectable amount of antibodies to be produced.

Symptoms can be mild or be mistaken for equine flu. The CFIA lists anorexia, depression, general weakness, intermittent fever, jaundice, swelling of extremities, and weight loss as possible symptoms. Small hemorrhages appearing as red dots on gums can also appear, Lage said.

No vaccine is available and antibiotics are ineffective against viruses. Veterinarians therefore treat symptoms by administering anti-inflammatory drugs or implementing a lifelong quarantine.

While Coggins tests may be perceived as an inconvenience, Lage encouraged equine owners to view the test as the proverbial ounce of prevention. Stolwyk pointed out a $100 test may save a $25,000 horse, while Zuk noted many rodeo horses are integral to the livelihood of their riders, and therefore require due diligence.

Moving forward, Lage voiced a desire to see testing rules imposed by regional sanctioning bodies to ensure consistency at the local level. For the time being, however, local rodeo organizers seem not to mind the extra hurdle.

"This is a long-term commitment," Stolwyk said. "If we don’t look out for our competitors…we have no rodeo."

Organizers encouraged rodeo entrants and other horse owners with questions or concerns to contact their local veterinarian and familiarize themselves with the CFIA’s fact sheet, available online.

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