Boosting Your Horse's Immune System

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To compete at your highest level, you need a good horse. Not only that, your good horse must be healthy if he's to perform at his best. Keeping a horse healthy isn't something that just happens. Horse owners must constantly monitor their horse for the most minor changes in appearance, attitude and performance. Furthermore, being proactive can save a great deal of headaches down the line. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Although there are dozens of areas to pay attention to in order to keep your horse going strong, the immune system is one many horse owners take for granted. Too often, owners feel that after administering the initial vaccinations, they're set. But there are a myriad of opportunities out there for your horse to get sick and just as many ways to prevent it. So, here are a few guidelines, from the obvious to the obscure to keep your horse's immune system as strong as possible so he feels good, looks good and performs to the peak of his ability.

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Vaccinations
Many horse owners go in for their spring shots and that's it. But understand what you're vaccinating for, and you'll be more likely to do what's necessary.

Eastern and Western Encephalomyelitis
This acute viral disease of rodents, birds, horses and man is transmitted by the mosquito. The vaccine is a combination of killed viruses. Initial vaccination is followed by a second dose in two to three weeks or four to six weeks, depending on vaccine used. An annual re-vaccination is given thereafter. Horse owners across the country should vaccinate for this.

Tetanus
This is a vaccination all horse owners should administer. If your horse gets a wound of any kind, tetanus is a threat. As much as we'd like to think our horses are safe, in reality, they are very prone to injury. The vaccination is a modified toxin that stimulates an immune response. The initial vaccination is followed by a second dose in four to six weeks. It is given annually thereafter. If you fail to re-vaccinate on a yearly basis, you must administer two doses as if you are initially vaccinating the horse.

Rhinopneumonitis
This is a standard vaccination your vet should administer. Rhino is a viral disease with three faces: respiratory disease, abortion, and a disease of the nervous system that can cause paralysis. It was once thought all of these problems were caused by the same rhino virus, but there are two rhino viruses involved in this disease: equine herpesvirus-1 and equine herpesvirus-4. EHV-1 protects horses against abortion and possibly the paralysis form. EHV-4 protects horses against the respiratory form, which accounts for more than 46 percent of respiratory disease in the horse, according to recent research.

Influenza
An acute, highly contagious viral disease affecting the upper respiratory tract of the horse. The vaccine is a combination of the two most common strains of influenza as a killed virus. Initial vaccination is followed by a second dose in three to four weeks. For horses who are actively showing and/or in contact with many horses in a high traffic situation, this should be given every three to four months, according to the manufacturer. The vaccine provides protection for three to four months.

Rhino/Flu Combination Vaccine
This is a vaccine containing influenza strains and rhinopneumonitis EHV-4. This combination vaccine is excellent for performance horses or horses in a high-exposure situation (such as boarding stables or ropings) who need rhino/flu vaccines every three to four months.

Strangles
This is one most team ropers who travel much or board their horses should consider. This contagious bacterial disease of the horse affects the upper respiratory tract with abscessation of the lymph nodes, especially in the upper neck and throat region. A killed bacterin is available. Initial vaccination is followed by a booster in three weeks and a third booster in six weeks from the initial vaccine. Annual re-vaccination is given thereafter. Another vaccine for strangles recommends initial dose repeated in three to four weeks and annually. Be aware, however, this is not to be given in the face of an outbreak or at a facility where there was a confirmed case for one year after the case was diagnosed.

Rabies
This vaccine was recently approved for horses. It contains a killed virus to protect against this disease, which affects the central nervous system and results in death. This disease has been on the rise lately and is transmissible from horse to human, thereby posing a severe public health problem. This is an annual vaccine only.

Potomac Horse Fever
This is a seasonal disease seen generally in the summer months. It had been reported in 33-plus states as of summer 1998. The disease is characterized by high fever, severe diarrhea, malaise, depression, anorexia and very often a severe founder that can effect all four feet. It has a high mortality rate. There is now an annual vaccine for the prevention of this disease. It is best to give one in early spring. Initial vaccination is followed by a booster in three to four weeks and annual re-vaccination thereafter.

West Nile Virus
If you're not aware of this threat, you must have been living under a rock. West Nile Virus (WNV) is recognized for its inflammatory effects on the brain and neurologic system of humans and horses. This virus also affects birds, some dying as a result. Birds serve as carriers for the virus; mosquitoes feed on birds and then are able to infect a person or a horse with their subsequent bites.

Potentially any mammal can be infected by the virus if exposed to mosquito bites, but mostly this disease seems to be confined to birds, horses and humans.

Horses and humans are considered dead-end hosts, meaning they are not infective to others. Symptoms of WNV include the following: stumbling or tripping, muscle weakness or twitching, partial paralysis, loss of appetite, depression or lethargy, head pressing or tilt, impaired vision, wandering or circling, inability to swallow, inability to stand up, fever, convulsions, coma and death. Fort Dodge and Merial both have different vaccinations to combat this disease. Consult your vet for the one that's right for your horse.

Parasite control
Worming

Different worming products protect against different parasitic threats. For the most part, there are three classes of dewormers that combat different combinations of worms, these are: macrocyclic lactones, which include ivermectin and moxidectin; tetrahydropirimidines, or pyrantel; and finally benzimidazoles, which include febendazole, mebendazole and oxibendazole. Prazaquantel is the fourth chemical group that has a less significant role to play in worm prevention and is used primarily in combination formulas.

Keep in mind the chemicals listed above are not brand names, instead they are the active chemicals in worm prevention. To keep horses safe from all these threats, a healthy rotation of all these chemical classes is necessary. The brand makes no difference, the key component to look for when purchasing these products is what chemical group it falls into. Finally, there are combination dewormers and continuous dewormers that have some combination of the above listed chemicals.

Parasite control is of utmost importance in maintaining your horse's health and helping prevent intestinal damage. Most vets recommend de-worming every eight weeks, with bot de-worming done in the late fall or early winter. The reason for worming every eight weeks is that after 10-12 weeks your horse no longer has larvae in his gut; they will have become real worms.

Fly Control
Flies can carry disease, cause ligament damage and create a general nuisance to you, your horse and your neighbors. There are several ways to fight the fly battle, including: manure management, using other bugs to prey on the flies, trapping, using chemicals and fly masks or wraps.

Consistent Feeding Program
Feeding your horse a consistent and balanced diet is another way to prevent disease. Abrupt shocks to the digestive system can affect the immune system and make a horse more susceptible to infection.

Consider feeding grass hay, the horse's natural feed, along with a ration formulated to give the horse any further vitamins and minerals.Also, there are many supplements on the market designed to boost your horses' immunity, including echinacea, ginseng and others. Some companies, including Brookby Herbs and Naturally Equine make a supplement specifically designed to boost a horse's immune system.

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The Little Things
There are little things, mostly common horse-owner knowledge, that you should be doing to keep your horse from getting sick.

• Feed your horse in a tub on the ground. The horse's body was designed to eat with its head down, allowing mucous and potential infectors to run out the nostril as it eats. The hay should not be on the ground because of worming and strangles dangers. If you notice your horse coughing and sneezing after he eats, this may be why.

• If you live in an area where the winters are cold you have a choice: to blanket or not to blanket and to stall or not to stall. If you start the winter out blanketing or stalling your horses, you must be consistent.

• Exercise is the best way for a horse to stay healthy. A stalled horse needs to stretch his legs to keep blood flowing properly and his immune system up. Also, if you stall your horse, make sure he gets enough exercise. Inactivity in an ammonia-soaked stall is a sure way to bring on infection. Warming up a blanketed or stalled horse in the winter is very important, while cooling-down a non-blanketed or stalled horse is just as vital.

• Grooming is an often-overlooked activity that has a two-fold benefit. First, it increases the horse's circulation, and second, gives you a chance for a close look at anything that might become a problem.

• Having your horses' teeth floated regularly is a good way to make sure they are getting all the proper nutrition they need.

• Pick and clean your horses' hooves regularly to prevent thrush. STW