A horse from rural Cape May County, New Jersey has tested positive for rabies.
The 20-month-old colt had been treated at a referral facility and was tested for rabies because he showed neurologic signs of disease. The colt was previously vaccinated, as were all other horses on the property. The exposed surviving horses have since received a booster vaccination and are under observation for 45 days. Exposed unvaccinated animals have been quarantined for six months.
The New Jersey Department of Agriculture Division of Animal Health encourages animal owners to speak with their veterinarians about vaccinating their charges against rabies if they have not already done. Vaccination of livestock and other domestic animals is the most effective strategy to protect animals against this disease and minimize the impact it could have on you and your animals. If unvaccinated livestock are suspected of having direct contact with a rabid animal or are suspected of contracting rabies, it could be necessary for the entire premises to be placed under quarantine.
Rabies is endemic in New Jersey but is often detected in bats, raccoons, foxes, skunks, cats, and, to a lesser extent, domestic pets and livestock.
Rabies—a zoonotic disease that can be spread from animals to humans—is caused by a lyssavirus that affects the neurologic system and salivary glands. Horses are exposed most commonly through the bite of another rabid animal.
In horses clinical signs of rabies are variable and can take up to 12 weeks to appear after the initial infection. Although affected horses are sometimes asymptomatic, an infected horse can show behavioral changes such as drowsiness, depression, fear, or aggression. Once clinical signs appear, there are no treatment options.
Rabies can only be diagnosed postmortem by submitting the horse’s head to a local public health laboratory to identify the rabies virus using a test called fluorescence antibody. Thus, ruling out all other potential diseases first is very important in these cases to avoid potentially unnecessary euthanasia.
Because rabies threatens both horses and the humans who handle them, the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) recommends rabies as a core vaccine every U.S. horse should receive. The AAEP’s vaccination guidelines recommend that adult horses receive an initial single dose and a booster vaccination annually; foals born to vaccinated mares should receive a first vaccine dose no earlier than at six month of age and a second dose four to six weeks later followed by annual vaccination; and foals of unvaccinated mares should receive a first vaccine dose at three or four months of age and should be revaccinated annually.