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Horses Present Rabies Risk: June 11, 2012

In any given year, we may have a few cases of rabies found in wild animals in the community.  But this year, local health officials are seeing it in horses. This poses a special risk.

It’s almost always deadly and that’s reason enough for health officials to closely monitor rabies – a viral infection that causes fatal encephalitis. 

“Someone gets infected, the muscle gets infected then it gets into the nerve tissue and then it travels to the brain,” says Dr. Robin Churchill, a pediatric infectious disease physician with The Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida.

We usually associate the threat in wild animal, such as bats, raccoons, skunks and foxes.  But another source is living among us.

“Horses can acquire rabies.  Usually about one horse a year in Florida acquires rabies,” says Dr. Churchill.

This year is exceptional.  In a matter of weeks, two horses in southwest Florida died from rabies. 

“This year already in this area we’ve had two horses, one in Hendry County and one in Lee County.  We don’t know if that’s gonna be a trend or if that’s just a coincidence,” says Dr. Churchill.

Horses aren’t required to get a rabies vaccination because they aren’t considered domestic animals. But that doesn’t stop people from treating them like pets.

“Sure, she’ll nibble.  They love to lick the salt off of you, says Anne Peters, a local stable owner.

Anne Peters gives riding lessons and boards horses at her North Fort Myers barn.  She’s acutely aware of the rabies risk.

“Oh yes, absolutely.  If a horse is bitten by an animal that has rabies, it goes up their spinal cord, right to their brain and neurologically affects them.  And it goes into their saliva glands and you’re putting a bridle in their mouth and dealing with their saliva.  It puts horse owners, veterinarians, (horse neighs in back) anybody who’s around the horse at danger,” says Peters.

Sixteen people had a series of post-exposure shots after coming in contact with one of the diseased horses. 

“You do have to have the immunoglobulin injected into the site of the wound, if there’s a wound. And then you get a series of four intramuscular vaccinations,” says Dr. Churchill.

The odds of a person getting rabies is slim, but the risk is there.

“Even if the horse is sick, they really don’t think of that. And a lot of people can be exposed,” says Dr. Churchill.