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Horses graze Monday south of Jamestown, N.D. An equine virus has appeared in North Dakota in recent weeks causing horse owners to take caution with attending various events. John M. Steiner / Forum News Service

Equine virus causes concern in North Dakota

The appearance of an equine virus in North Dakota has horse owners taking precautions that include canceling events that bring horses together.

The North Dakota Department of Agriculture confirmed the first known case of equine herpes virus (EHM) this year on April 24. A barrel-racing horse in Bowman County was diagnosed, grew progressively ill and was euthanized on April 20.

There are two confirmed cases of EHM this year in South Dakota, but none yet reported in Montana or Minnesota, according to the Equine Disease Communication Center.

"There is a lot of concern out there with the people in the community," said Greg Carlson, a large animal veterinarian with Southwood Veterinary Clinic in Jamestown, N.D. "Until we get some more diagnosed cases, we're trying not to let people get too excited about it."

A few equine events were canceled at the high school and college level, he said. It's partly that horse owners are deciding to keep animals at home rather than expose them to other animals, he said.

The EHM virus is getting more coverage on the internet this year but has yet to show it is an especially hazardous season, Carlson said.

"The North Dakota Veterinarian's Office is a great resource for people who want to do some research on it, and it's a heck of a lot better than the misinformation on Facebook and the internet in general," he said.

Annie Keffeler, president and founder of A Moment of Freedom riding program, said the decision to cancel a May 19 fundraiser ride and barbecue in Jamestown was not easy but necessary. She said program members agreed with the research of the equine specialist, who also runs a riding club, and said area horse owners believe there are suspected cases of equine herpesvirus-1 (EHV-1) in Stutsman County.

Even though there are no confirmed cases in the county, it is not worth it to place the horses at risk, Keffeler said. The feedback from the community has been supportive, as the virus can be easily transmitted through horse-to-horse contact, sharing water buckets, pitchforks or feed packs, she said.

"This is not worth the health and well-being of our horses and the general public's horses by possibly exposing them to this contagious virus," Keffeler said. "This decision was devastating, and we will try hosting another fundraiser next spring."

Vaccines are available and recommended before exposure for the respiratory and reproductive forms of EHV-1, said Susan Keller, the North Dakota state veterinarian. EHV-1 can cause respiratory disease, abortion, neonatal death and a rare neurologic form of the disease. EHV-1 poses no threat to human health but is highly contagious among horses.

Keller said the first stop for information is the North Dakota Department of Agriculture's EHV-1 webpage at https://bit.ly/2IHBn9C. The site lists the best biosecurity measures to reduce the risk of spreading the disease, she said.

"Biosecurity is what is all boils down to," Keller said.

When weighing the level of acceptable risks, biosecurity may mean keeping horses home or it could mean transporting them to events but avoiding shared food and water containers and avoiding nose-to-nose contact among horses, she said. Pets can transfer the virus not as carriers but as a fomite (infectious) agent, she said.

"The adults need to talk to kids to help them understand biosecurity," Keller said.

In 2011 the EHV virus seemed go through cutting horse circuit, she said. This year it is not yet clear where the virus started in the nation but seems to be more present with rodeo and event horses, she said.

The EHV virus mutates and it will require continued testing and monitoring on a state and national level to identify a specific genotype for 2018, she said. If an owner has a cost issue with testing there are programs help with expenses in some cases through the state veterinarian's office, she said.

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