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Region Escaping Worst of Equine Virus

The recent outbreak of equine herpes across a number of western states, including Arizona, could not have come at a worse time in the season, according to Northern Arizona veterinarian Dr. Jim Maciulla. He explains that the scare over the virus happened during the middle of a series of major horse shows, rodeos and roping competitions. “The horse industry has been hit hard by the recession anyway,” Maciulla said. “This virus has not helped – it’s created a lot of uncertainty.”

While the virus, known as EHV-1, is not transmittable to humans, it can affect mules, donkeys, alpacas, llamas, giraffes and gazelles – although so far the latest outbreak seems to have only impacted horses.

David Miller, owner of TCG, LLC Equestrian Center says he has been very vigilant about the virus. “We had boarders who had planned to come up in May and we had to not have them come because of where the horses had been.” That approach has been helpful for the Show Low center as well as others in the region.

Susan Wolfe, who owns the Northern Arizona Riding Stables near Flagstaff, has also been vigilant. When news of the virus first broke, she immediately imposed a lock-down on the horses at her establishment. None were allowed in or out and she turned away overnight boarders for the entire quarantine period of 20 days. Fifteen horses that were due to arrive from down south to board for the summer season had to delay their arrival. Horse boarding generates a lot of trade for equi-businesses in Northern Arizona in the summer. Stables take in horses from the Phoenix metro area where owners want to give their animals some respite from the desert heat. Wolfe’s outfit has the capacity to board up to 60 horses and is invariably full at this time of year, compared to around 50 percent occupancy in winter. She typically has between 15-20 customers who book every year for the entire summer season, bringing their horses in early May and leaving them until mid-October. This year, the quarantine precautions meant that Susan lost around three weeks of boarding revenue.

As well as summer seasonal horse boarders, Flagstaff stables get a fair bit of overnight trade. There’s a lot of passing traffic from equine competitors traveling with their horses from California to National Championships, many of which are held in Oklahoma City. For Wolfe and others in the business, these overnighters can represent an income of hundreds of dollars per night during the busy competition season.

Horses transported across state lines are required to be health certified by a vet within the last 10-30 days. To be extra vigilant, Susan Wolfe has been requiring her overnight boarders to have their certification validated within 72 hours. Traveling horses represent a higher potential viral threat, simply because they have been in contact with other horses at competitions they attend.

While these precautions have temporarily reduced income for her stables, Wolfe says that this is preferable to the possibility of an outbreak. She says if just one of her horse boarders came down with EHV-1, it would be the end of her business – a risk she just can’t afford to take.

Other horse boarding stables around town have reported a similar story – Flagstaff Hay, Grain and Boarding say that things are now getting back to normal after the temporary disruption – they have anywhere between 15 to 30 horses boarding on any one night.

Normally kept in check by the immune systems of healthy horses, the virus became active at the National Cutting Horse Association’s Western National Championships held in Ogden, Utah this spring. The latest viral strain is highly infectious – spread by direct horse-to-horse contact, as well as from the hands of horse workers, equipment, tack, feed buckets and even horse owners’ car steering wheels. Dr. Maciulla says that in this outbreak, a good percentage of infected horses have developed neurological symptoms and become fatally ill – creating a lot of hysteria. Maciulla says that while the virus has stimulated his business, most of his increased workload has been educating clients and discussing safety measures; he has not had to hospitalize any animals.

There is no proven vaccine for EHV-1 currently; the anti-herpes equine vaccine that is available offers only limited protection and is only being prescribed for “at-risk” horses with likely exposure. At the time of printing, 33 horses had been directly exposed to the virus statewide, with four confirmed cases, two more suspected cases and one death. However the horse industry has done a good job in responding rapidly to the situation and so far; unlike the situation in California, no big horse events have been cancelled in Northern Arizona.

The Annual Arizona Cowpunchers Rodeo in Williams took place as scheduled on Father’s Day weekend. Spokesperson Trina Runston says the virus threat was of concern and that event organizers had been in contact with local vets. Precautions at this year’s event included horses not sharing water troughs and not being allowed to stand around in groups nose to nose. Ahead of the 124th Annual World’s Oldest Rodeo at the Prescott Rodeo Grounds, a self-imposed quarantine of the facility was put in effect – all equine-related events prior to the first rodeo performance on June 28 were cancelled as a precaution to safeguard the main events. The event organizers, Prescott Frontier Days, Inc., also excluded all horses from the rodeo grounds prior to the opening – although there have been no occurrences of EHV-1 in Prescott or to any animals having been at the Prescott Rodeo Grounds since the outbreak was first reported. This traditional event, which last year hosted 32,000 visitors, has occurred annually over the Fourth of July weekend since 1888. Meanwhile the decisions to cancel this year’s Yavapai Downs and Coconino County Races were made for financial reasons, before the virus outbreak.

Dr. Maciulla says the hope is that this current viral scare will run a similar course to a 2007 California outbreak, which was very infectious and snuffed out quickly. However, he thinks that it will take a year before the overall impact of the virus on the finances of the region’s horse industry will be fully known.

Photo:  David Miller.  Taken by Dwayne Shepard


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