(The Canadian Press)

‘Worst of the worse cases:’ Alberta horse owners on alert for outbreak of fever

An outbreak of the Potomac horse fever has been declared in Alberta

Sue McIntosh thought her horse, Finnegan, looked a bit off, so she rushed him to a veterinary clinic a couple of weeks ago.

The 13-year-old horse was diagnosed with Potomac horse fever, a disease that kills horses in up to 30 per cent of cases.

An outbreak of the illness has been declared in Alberta.

“He was in critical care for three days and then he was there for another couple of days on IV with his ice boots on,” says McIntosh, who runs a horse therapy program at Cremona, northwest of Calgary.

“It’s not just our family that’s affected, because people are very connected to these animals and they were worried.”

Finnegan recovered and was sent home, where he nuzzled with McIntosh during a recent interview.

The Moore Equine Veterinary Centre, just north of Calgary, treated Finnegan and several other horses with the illness.

“The ones that we see are typically the very sick horses,” Dr. Gillian Haanen says while checking on a patient. Fluid dripped into the horse from two large clear bags connected to the ceiling of a stall.

“Treatment is trying to kill the bacteria with an antibiotic, lots of fluids,” Haanen says, adding boots filled with ice are also put on the horse’s hooves to help with inflammation.

“In the more serious cases, they kind of go into this downward spiral where they’re not feeling well. So those horses generally need aggressive treatment.”

Potomac horse fever produces mild colic, fever and diarrhea in horses of all ages, as well abortions in pregnant mares.

The bacteria lives inside snails, slugs and aquatic insects, such as mayflies and caddisflies. Horses eat the bugs while drinking water or eating hay or grass.

Infected animals can lose up to 100 litres of fluid per day.

The disease was first identified in 1979 in the eastern United States near the Potomac River, but it has since been identified in various other locations in the United States, as well as in Alberta and Ontario.

“You might have clusters of cases and that’s what we’re really seeing in Alberta this year,” says Dr. Ashley Whitehead, a senior equine specialist at the University of Calgary.

“At the clinic I worked at, we’ve probably had about 16 cases come in the last two months. And that may not seem like too much, but it’s a significant amount. Because we’re seeing the worst of the worse cases.”

Whitehead says the university is participating in a study at the University of Guelph, which is looking into a second bacteria that can also cause the illness.

Some horses appear to be more susceptible to getting the fever, says Whitehead. It could be something that disrupts the loads of bacteria in a horse’s gastrointestinal tract.

“Anything that changes that harmony ends up causing the potential for something else to get in and overtake it,” says Whitehead.

“Anything that stresses the horse can change that bacterial population in there.”

Jennifer Maciej has her own theory.

Maciej lost a horse, Sultan, to Potomac horse fever five years ago.

“It was absolutely horrific. He went from the diarrhea, depressed, not wanting to eat and all of that,” she says from her home east of Edmonton.

“You could see the emotion. You could tell that he was still there. But the third time I went and saw him, he was done. It was like, ‘I’m so sorry. I’m done fighting.’”

Maciej says horses are attuned to the emotions of their owners. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have been upset in their personal lives.

“We’ve got a lot of people that are stressed, especially this year with COVID. And when people are stressed, it transfers over to the animals. And they can only take so much,” she says.

“It’s like with people, we’re more susceptible to getting sick when we’re stressed. I believe animals are exactly the same.”

Although horses can get a form of coronavirus, there’s been no record of equine cases of COVID-19.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 28, 2020.

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press

Albertahorse

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta has 3,651 active cases of COVID-19. (File photo)
432 new COVID cases sets another record Friday

Central zone holds steady at 126 active cases

"We are looking seriously at the spread and determining what our next steps should be," says Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, as the daily number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb.
427 new COVID cases is highest in Alberta ever

Central zone has 126 active cases of COVID-19

(Stock image)
Virtual mental health network now available to Albertans

Platform offers safe, anonymous, peer-to-peer supports with a global community

B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson, B.C. NDP leader John Horgan and B.C. Greens leader Sonia Furstenau. (Black Press Media)
VIDEO: One day until B.C. voters go to the polls in snap election defined by pandemic

NDP Leader John Horgan’s decision to call an election comes more than a year ahead of schedule and during a pandemic

This photo provided by Air Force Reserve shows a sky view of Hurricane Epsilon taken by Air Force Reserve hurricane hunter team over the Atlantic Ocean taken Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020.   Epsilon’s maximum sustained winds have dropped slightly as it prepares to sideswipe Bermuda on a path over the Atlantic Ocean.  The National Hurricane Center says it should come close enough Thursday, Oct. 22, evening to merit a tropical storm warning for the island.  (Air Force Reserve via AP)
Hurricane Epsilon expected to remain offshore but will push waves at Atlantic Canada

Epsilon is not expected to have any real impact on land

A voter places her absentee ballot in the ballot box, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at Merrill Auditorium in Portland, Maine. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Robert F. Bukaty
American voters living in Canada increasingly being counted in presidential race

The largest number of Canadian-based American voters cast their ballots in New York and California

A composite image of three photographs shows BC NDP Leader John Horgan, left, in Coquitlam, B.C., on Sept. 25, 2020; BC Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau, centre, in Victoria on Sept. 24, 2020; and BC Liberal Party Leader Andrew Wilkinson Pitt Meadows, B.C., on Sept. 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck, Chad Hipolito
British Columbia votes in snap election called during COVID-19 pandemic

NDP Leader John Horgan called the snap election one year before the fixed voting date

Nunavut's provincial flag flies on a flag pole in Ottawa, on Tuesday June 30, 2020. The annual report from Nunavut's representative for children and youth says "complacency and a lack of accountability" in the territory's public service means basic information about young people needing services isn’t tracked. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Nunavut’s young people ‘should be expecting more’ from government services: advocate

‘The majority of information we requested is not tracked or was not provided by departments’

Ryen Williams, 11, with a lost miniature horse at JJ Collett Oct. 23. Photo by Don Williams
UPDATE: Owners found

Father and son found him while out for a walk at JJ Collett

A Le Chateau retail store is shown in Montreal on Wednesday July 13, 2016. Le Chateau Inc. says it is seeking court protection from creditors under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act to allow it to liquidate its assets and wind down its operations.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Clothing retailer Le Chateau plans to close its doors, files for CCAA protection

Le Chateau said it intends to remain fully operational as it liquidates its 123 stores

U.S. border officers at the Peace Arch crossing arrested two men on California warrants this week. (File photo)
Ottawa predicts system delays, backlogs unless court extends life of refugee pact

Canada and the United States recognize each other as safe places to seek protection

Conservative member of Parliament Michelle Rempel Garner, left to right, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and Conservative Deputy Leader Candice Bergen arrive to hold a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
No-confidence showdown over sweeping Tory motion on government handling of pandemic

The Conservative motion is to be put to a vote Monday and has the support of both the Bloc Québécois and NDP

Most Read