West Nile Virus: To Vaccinate or Not, That Is the Question

Let’s begin with the history of West Nile Virus vaccine. While its safety and effectiveness were at one time questioned, it is now an accepted part of preventative maintenance programs. And although once available only from a veterinarian, the vaccine is now sold through retail outlets.

The good news is that healthy horses are not susceptible to West Nile Virus. In fact, your horse may have been infected and you didn’t even notice. Perhaps you detected some lethargy around the barn or the horse was a little off on the trail, and then returned to its usual self in a few days. In otherwise healthy horses, a light fever is likely the most common course of the disease.

Before automatically reaching for the needle, take time to understand the virus. For starters, do your part to control mosquitoes. And secondly, only vaccinate those at risk for West Nile Virus – young, old and debilitated horses are most susceptible. Since vaccines work by insulting the immune system, do not inject sick animals. Their defenses are already lagging and any vaccine will only depress their immune systems further.

Although the vaccines promise year-long immunity, booster your horse six weeks prior to the onset of mosquito season in your area. Since mosquito strikes peak in late summer and early fall, the West Nile Virus vaccine isn’t likely as effective when administered in spring. Now is the time to administer the vaccine.

As with any vaccine, there are potential side effects. I’ve seen adverse reactions with all of the West Nile Virus products ranging from the relatively minor (pain and swelling at the injection site) to significantly more serious side effects like anaphylaxis, as well as a mare with personality changes. The most common complaints are fever and swollen lymph nodes. Just last year, one manufacturer did a voluntary recall after reports of systemic reactions and death in horses after using their vaccine. If your horse has a reaction of any kind, it’s important to discontinue the vaccination.

If West Nile Virus vaccination is not for you, consider spending about the same amount of money on immune stimulants. Ask your veterinarian about an intravenous immune stimulant or invest in nutraceuticals like MSM and Ester C. Therapeutic grade essential oils – not those used for aromatic purposes – can also stimulate and protect the immune system. Lavender, orange and pine oils can be applied topically, while citronella, peppermint and eucalyptus oils can be incorporated into a homemade insect repellent.

Ultimately, I believe West Nile Virus vaccines serve a useful purpose – they just aren’t appropriate for every horse. Even though I don’t vaccinate my own, I encourage owners to weigh the pros and cons and make informed decisions. Do not allow a sense of guilt imposed upon you by the pharmaceutical industry replace your own good judgement.

When used correctly, vaccines decrease the severity and duration of disease. However, vaccines do not guarantee protection and may actually give horse owners a false sense of security. That’s because manufacturers often manipulate data to influence veterinarians and use clever advertising to create demand for their products. Lost in the marketing buzz is the fact that healthy horses are capable of fighting disease, and that excessive vaccination is eliminating that ability from the gene pool.

After Dinner Mint

It’s a common sight at many restaurants – the complimentary peppermint-flavored candy at the cash register. No surprise there because peppermint is traditionally used as a digestive aid. But did you know that it can do the same for your horse?

Skip the Candies and Go Straight for the Oil

While horses are known to indulge in the occasional peppermint candy treat, digestive upset calls for a stronger remedy: therapeutic-grade peppermint oil. “Therapeutic grade” simply means a very pure form of the oil, which is derived from a plant extract. You can find therapeutic-grade peppermint oil, which normally retails for about the same price as a couple bags of feed, online or at your local health-food store. Avoid cheaper aromatic only versions that offer no therapeutic value. I personally like Young Living essential oils.

For best results, apply a dab (moistened fingertip) of peppermint oil on the gums and under the belly of your horse. When applying, allow your horse to sniff the open vial to experience the stomach-soothing aromatic properties. Since essential oils are readily absorbed and act quickly, repeat every few hours. You should expect to a see a difference in about an hour.

This remedy is an aid for mild digestive upset only, and not intended to treat undiagnosed or severe gastrointestinal disorders.

Bugs Be Gone

Beau is a cremello. With his delicate skin and light hair, insects are drawn to him. It makes keeping him comfortable this time of year a real challenge.

Earlier this summer, a client gave me a bottle of Liquid Net insect repellent for horses. It was new to me, but I liked that it was all natural and had a pleasant scent. Without hesitation, I tried it on Beau.

Long story short, it really works. Beau is no longer covered with bites, and he even stands still when sprayed with Liquid Net. And though the label suggests re-applying after four hours, it lasts much longer.

This is not an official endorsement, just something I like for my own horse – and I thought you might like it, too.

What’s In a Name?

When it comes to tetanus shots, not all vaccines are created equal.

Out of habit, I always look in the refrigerator at feed stores to see what kind of tetanus vaccine they sell. More often than not, I find vials of tetanus antitoxin along with, or in the place of, tetanus toxoid. I often wonder if the person doing the ordering understands the critical differences between the two vaccines.

Let’s take a look at both.

Tetanus Toxoid
Toxoid is the typical tetanus shot, the one you should use for your horse’s initial immunization and annual booster. It is labeled “for prevention of tetanus” and takes 2 to 3 weeks to confer immunity. Since horses are prone to tetanus, give a toxoid booster at least once a year, as well as with any surgical procedure or penetrating injury.

Tetanus Antitoxin
Antitoxin is labeled “for prevention and treatment of tetanus.” It offers immediate protection from tetanus for 7 to 14 days, so only use antitoxin when you need quick and temporary immunity against tetanus in an emergency involving an unvaccinated horse. However, remember to follow up with a tetanus toxoid vaccine.

It all seems innocent enough, but tetanus antitoxin is known to cause liver damage in as little as a single dose. So read the labels and make an informed decision, regardless of what you find in your store’s refrigerator.

A Cup a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

A few days ago, I was asked about adding flaxseed to a feeding regimen, only to find the horse owner overwhelmed by the different options. With pros and cons for each – whole, ground, or oil – it really comes down to individual preference and, in some cases, the needs of the horse. Here’s a quick rundown:

Whole Flaxseed
Flaxseed can be fed whole without any digestive problems. However, the average horse cannot fully grind the small seeds, resulting in a portion of the supplement passing through the system without ever being utilized. Even so, it’s the cheapest alternative because it can be bought in bulk.

Flaxseed Meal
Flaxseed is easy to grind into meal with a bit of effort (a coffee grinder works well). But since ground flaxseed becomes unstable when exposed to air, it should be used immediately. Or store it in an airtight container.

Flaxseed Oil
Flaxseed oil is the most convenient, but also the most expensive, route for adding flaxseed to the diet. While is has the added benefit of extra calories (helpful if the horse needs to gain weight), it lacks the fiber found in seeds or meal. And because flaxseed oil is highly perishable, you will need to keep it in the refrigerator.

High in omega fatty acids, all forms of flaxseed are known to enhance immune function and possess natural anti-inflammatory properties. Short-term benefits of adding flaxseed to the diet are enhanced skin and coat and relief from certain allergies; long-term benefits include improved hoof and bone health and enhanced reproductive function.

Take it from me, a cup a day really does help keep the doctor away.

By a Neck

When it comes to founder, the conversation usually goes directly to the feet – but it should really start with the neck.

That’s because cortisol, the founder hormone, deposited in the fat of the neck is what gives it that characteristic “cresty” appearance – a telltale sign that your horse is either prone to founder or has foundered in the past.

Now, take a look at the horse in the photo. Do you see the cresty neck?

This is Shorty, a retired cow horse who foundered a few years ago and now suffers from excessive cortisol storage. (Overindulgence this summer landed him back in dry lot.) Notice the arched and thickened appearance of his neck, and the way he stands with his feet in the water tank. More than just an “easy keeper,” Shorty will need to be monitored the rest of his life.

An Ounce of Prevention

To prevent your horse from suffering the same fate as Shorty, be vigilant. Keep in mind that the condition of the neck can vary in a short period of time, so get into the habit of checking it regularly for changes that could signal a problem.

Contrary to popular opinion, even a thin horse can store extra cortisol in its neck. So resist the urge to get complacent just because your horse is at a good weight. And, of course, a normal-looking neck should never be a license to feed your horse with reckless abandon.

This is one battle you don’t want to lose – by a neck.

Straight from the Horse’s Mouth

Welcome to “Tales from the Horse Doc.”

This blog will cut through the clutter and shed light on some of the common issues affecting horse owners. With so much information and so many misconceptions, a lot of horse owners are overwhelmed and struggling to make sense of equine health issues. From preventative medicine to catastrophic illness and injury, this blog will help guide you in the right direction.

Over the years, I have cultivated a love for all kinds of horses – from backyard varieties to racehorses – and can appreciate a good one, regardless of breed or discipline. Along the way, I also have discovered that being a horse doctor requires a sense of humor and a study of human nature. After all, every horse (and its owner, for that matter) is different, which has taught me to be dynamic in my practice of veterinary medicine.

I believe common sense and good husbandry are the backbone of horse health, and that preventing a problem is easier than fixing one. In other words: Less is sometimes more, and new is not always better. And, most of all, I believe horse owners want the truth.

So, tell me your concerns. Ask me your questions. This is a forum for horse owners and enthusiasts to come together to learn, share, and grow in our understanding of equine health.

Let’s kick things off with a tip geared to the summer months. Do you throw grass clippings over the pasture or paddock fence when you mow the lawn? If so, your horse will probably think it has died and gone to heaven – all that grass to eat, with so little effort.

However, it can create a choking hazard, as recently cut grass tends to clump together. While some horses manage to get it down without incident, others may choke (symptoms include salivation, nasal discharge, and distress).

If you do feed clippings, spread the grass out over a large area rather than leaving it in a pile. This will help prevent your horse from bolting the grass, which can also cause digestive upset. And, of course, always check for any foreign objects among the clippings.