Why Vaccines are SO Important for your horse!

“Do I really need to vaccinate my horse?”  YES. Absolutely.  In an era where more and more people are turning to a more holistic approach to health care for both themselves and their horses, it is important to remember that vaccines are still an extremely important part of protecting your horse from harm.

All horses in Florida need at minimum to be vaccinated against Rabies, West Nile Virus, Eastern Encephalitis, and Tetanus.  These are called ‘core’ vaccines because ALL horses should have them, regardless of their age, use, travel, or geographic location. The list of core vaccines and recommended vaccine schedule is put together by experts in immunology and equine medicine within the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the nationwide organization of horse vets.  Why these four, and not others? Here’s the criteria used to qualify a vaccine as ‘core’, or a ‘MUST have’:

The disease causes severe symptoms or death.

  1. Rabies: A variety of neurologic symptoms leading to certain death.
  2. West Nile: Muscle twitching, hyper excitability, in-coordination, sometimes inability to stand or death.
  3. Eastern Encephalitis: Fever, severe in-coordination, inability to stand, seizures, coma, death.
  4. Tetanus: Muscle spasms/rigidity, inability to eat or drink, inability to rise, death.

The disease is difficult or impossible to treat.

  1. Rabies: 100% fatal regardless of treatment.
  2. West Nile: Supportive care only. Up to 1/3 of horses die despite treatment, and others have lasting neurological problems.
  3. Eastern Encephalitis: Supportive care only. Up to 90% of horses die despite treatment.
  4. Tetanus: Antibiotics, muscle relaxants and supportive care are used. 50-75% of horses die despite treatment.

The way the disease is spread puts all horses at risk, regardless of the horse’s lifestyle.

  1. Rabies: Through bites from rabid animals.
  2. West Nile: Spread by mosquitoes.
  3. Eastern Encephalitis: Spread by mosquitoes.
  4. Tetanus: Bacteria lives in the soil, horses exposed through wounds or hoof abscesses.

The vaccine is safe and effective.

  1. Rabies vaccine: 99% effective in preventing disease
  2. West Nile vaccine: 95-99% effective in preventing disease
  3. Eastern Encephalitis vaccine: 95-99% effective in preventing disease
  4. Tetanus vaccine: 95-99% effective in preventing disease

“But my horse doesn’t ever leave the property or interact with other horses.” Doesn’t matter.  Your horse doesn’t have to go anywhere to get bit by a raccoon, a mosquito, or injure himself.

“But I’ve never heard of a horse getting Rabies.” Yes, Rabies in horses is rare. But when it does, there’s always a long list of people who get exposed in the process of diagnosing and caring for the horse prior to its death. Those people then have to go through the expensive and painful process of post-exposure therapy. Vaccinating your horse is a $20 insurance policy to protect you and your family from the possibility of exposure.

“But there haven’t been any cases of West Nile/Eastern Equine Encephalitis in my area recently. Those diseases are not here anymore.” WRONG. Just this year there have been 10 cases of EEE in horses in  central Florida (Alachua, Gilcrest, and Levy counties). Our practice personally diagnosed 3 cases of EEE this season, all of course in un-vaccinated animals. The reason there haven’t been even MORE cases is because we have done a good job protecting horses by vaccinating them.

“But I’m worried about vaccine reactions.” This is a valid concern. Like all decisions in veterinary medicine, the decision to vaccinate should be one of risks-versus-benefits. For most horses the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risks of vaccine reactions. The most common form of vaccine reactions are very mild – either a brief fever or local swellings, easily controlled by a few days of anti-inflammatories. If your horse has a history of a more severe reaction, then it may be safer to withhold that vaccine from that individual horse.

“My horse has had vaccines plenty of times before. He doesn’t need any more. My small animal vet says we only need to vaccinate my dog every 3 years.” Horses are not dogs. Unfortunately horses do not mount the same level of an immune response to vaccination as people or dogs. The scientists who did the research on extending the time between vaccines for small animals are clear that this won’t work in horses because of the different way their immune systems function. To be properly protected, horses in Florida should be vaccinated yearly against Rabies and West Nile Virus, and every 6 months against Eastern Equine Encephalitis.