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Coughs and Sneezes spread diseases


Published 5th March 2019


Everyone is aware of the extensive media coverage generated by the recent and ongoing outbreak of equine influenza. When “horse flu” makes it to the main BBC news bulletin it must be serious. Over 40 premises across the whole country have been found to have infected horses and racing was brought to a standstill nationally. Outbreaks have also occurred in several countries in mainland Europe.

Many people are asking if horse flu is serious enough to cause such widespread concern and I think the answer must be yes. Influenza viruses are highly contagious and are spread very easily from horse to horse and by casual contact with grooms, riders etc. But “I get flu every winter and I get over it quickly” I hear many say but in fact we rarely get true influenza, what we all call “flu” is a mild and transient respiratory virus infection of which there are many. True influenza is far more serious and in the early 20th century there was a global outbreak of human influenza which killed between 40 and 50 million people worldwide. In horses, the disease can be quite debilitating for several days or even weeks depending upon the individual’s immune status and its vaccination history. In large communities of horses which travel the country such as race horses, eventers and show jumpers many thousands of horses can be put at risk within days of an infected horse spreading the disease to the other competitors at a race meeting or a show. The health risks are obvious but the financial implications can also be monumental. If the outbreak in the racing world had been treated causally, as many have suggested it should, our own local Cheltenham Festival would have been at risk of cancellation and the costs to date of preparations for the meeting already run into tens of millions of pounds.

What are the facts?

What does all this mean for the average horse owner? A few simple facts might be helpful and will hopefully answer many of the questions and dispel some of the myths circulating the horse world.

  • Both vaccinated and unvaccinated horses have been affected but the vaccinated horses have been much less seriously affected.
  • No vaccine of any type can be guaranteed to provide 100% protection against any disease in either man or animals but they do reduce the risk and the severity of any infection.
  • Horses which have been vaccinated within the 6 months leading up to the outbreak have shown significantly greater resistance to the disease than those vaccinated more than 6 months before.
  • The three currently available leading vaccines all contain the strain of virus identified in the recent outbreak.
  • The majority of horses in the UK are NOT vaccinated and this is a potential source of the infection recurring as it spreads out of the unvaccinated population.

Rule changes

The regulating authorities for all equestrian sports are currently reviewing their influenza vaccination regulations and their advice to horse owners. Unfortunately not all authorities offer the same advice and some are difficult to understand because they contradict common sense.

Based on information derived from the outbreak, the best protection is provided by giving a horse a flu booster every 6 months after the primary course of two vaccinations.

Protection is provided by the individual’s immune response to vaccination rather than by the vaccine itself and it takes the body a few days to respond to vaccination. This response often causes the individual to be slightly under the weather for a few days (this also applies to ourselves) and many show an increased temperature for 24 to 48 hours. It is sensible therefore to give your horse a few quiet days after vaccination before competing again or even working hard at home. Advice regarding this “stand down” period varies between authorities but science suggests it should be at least 5 and preferably 7 days. Not only will this avoid competing a horse which is slightly under the weather but it is necessary to allow the vaccine time to have an effect and to generate an increase in protective immunity.

Many competition venues will now only admit horses which comply with the suggestions outlined above. In the point to point world horses are not even allowed to unload until the passport is checked and the owner has presented a signed declaration of health which includes a record of the horse’s temperature taken on the morning of the race. Unlicensed trainers running horses in Hunter Chase races must also provide a negative flu swab result taken within the 72 hours prior to the race. These are quite onerous requirements but clearly indicate that the racing world is doing it’s very best to prevent any spread of flu within the racing world. 

Have the authorities gone overboard?

I don’t think so but this is a fair question. You would be very disappointed if your horse came home sick after competing alongside an infected horse at a local show jumping or dressage event. Your next planned competition might have to be cancelled and you might incur unnecessary vet’s fees.

What should I do as an owner?

  • Make sure your horse’s vaccinations are up to date.
  • Give a flu booster if it is more than 6 months since the last vaccination.
  • Limit contact with other horses, particularly unvaccinated horses until the outbreak is over.
  • Consult your vet if there is any sign that your horse is abnormally quiet or has any form of unusual nasal discharge.
  • Check the rectal temperature daily if you have any concern regarding your horse's health or the health of others on the same yard.



Since my last blog when I wrote about the potential dehydration risks when horses do not drink enough water because it is too cold I have experienced 3 horses with mild impaction colic because they did not drink enough water. The owners incurred significant vet’s fees which might have been avoided if they had paid more attention to how much water their horse was drinking and the owner had added some hot water to encourage drinking.



At EquiFeast we are extremely privileged to be able to share with you guest blogs EXCLUSIVELY available through our website. Renowned equine veterinarian John Killingbeck and his wife Lucy have been using EquiFeast on their horses for many years and John has graciously offered to provide exclusive blog posts for us to feature on our website and share with our followers.

Keep an eye out for future posts on key topical issues that will be of interest to any keen horse owner.



For more information on John and his career to date, please CLICK HERE.

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