Now's the time to vaccinate your horses against rabies, West Nile, flu

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Confirmed incidents of fox and dog rabies in the Magdalena area and Valencia County last year, as well as an outbreak of equine flu this year and the ever-present West Nile disease, has veterinarian Dean Wilkinson of Animal Haven Veterinary Clinic advising Socorro County residents to vaccinate their horses against these serious diseases this spring.

Dogs are routinely vaccinated against rabies, and Dr. Paul Ettestad, public health veterinarian for the Department of Health, said horses should be, too.

"It's very important," he said. "We usually have ten to 20 rabid animals per year (in New Mexico). It's a really good safety precaution to get your horse inoculated with a rabies booster every year."

Ettestad said fox rabies arrived in Catron County from Arizona in 2007 and spread to Magdalena last year. Rabid bats are found every year in New Mexico.

"The bat strain is all over the state," he said. "There's always the potential for your horse to be exposed to rabies."

Confusing symptoms often also expose horse handlers to the fatal disease, he said.

"The horse shows excessive salivation and difficulty swallowing, and people think the horse has a piece of wire in its throat," Ettistad said. "So they all put their hands in trying to get it out."

Contact with a rabid animal's saliva transmits the disease unless the patient receives a series of expensive and painful shots within 10 to 14 days of exposure, he said. The disease is almost 100 percent fatal; the few survivors have suffered severe neurological problems.

Having a rabid horse at a horse show is even worse.

"With all the people walking by, petting the horse, or being licked by the horse — it's a huge problem finding out who was exposed to the horse," he said.

The state livestock board slaps a quarantine on all unvaccinated horses attending an event where a rabid horse is detected.

"The incubation period can be months, so they have to quarantine them for at least six months," he said.

That means keeping them away from all other horses and people.

Wilkinson recommends all 4-H members planning to attend this summer's state 4-H horse school get their horses vaccinated against rabies now.

The New Mexico Department of Health reported eleven confirmed rabies cases in the state in 2013: six rabid bats in Bernalillo, Santa Fe and Eddy Counties; one dog in Valencia County; one fox in Socorro county; and three skunks in Eddy County.

Horses have tested positive for rabies in New Mexico, most recently, one case in Eddy County in 2011 and one in Lincoln county in 2010.

"Horse owners should continue with West Nile vaccines," Ettestad said. "Horses don't get a booster dose, and then come down with West Nile."

Ettestad recommends vaccinating horses against the potentially fatal disease every year in March or April before the mosquito season.

Mosquitoes biting infected birds transmit the disease to horses.

Local veterinarian Dean Wilkinson said a recent outbreak of equine influenza has sickened several area horses.

"We've had several flu-positive horses," he said. "Four horses that had it were very, very sick and got pneumonia."

Yearly booster shots are needed protect horses against equine influenza.