(The Canadian Press)

(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

Supporters gather during a rally against measures taken by government and health authorities to curb the spread of COVID-19 at the Whistle Stop cafe in Mirror Alta, on Saturday May 8, 2021. The Whistle Stop was shut down by AHS for not complying with COVID-19 rules. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Police hand out tickets to dozens leaving anti-lockdown protest in Alberta

Hundreds gathered outside the Whistle Stop Café in the hamlet of Mirror, Alta.

People line up outside an immunization clinic to get their Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in Edmonton, Tuesday, April 20, 2021. Alberta leads the Prairie provinces in being the first to take COVID-19 vaccine bookings for pre-teens. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta leads Prairie provinces in accepting COVID vaccine bookings for pre-teens

The province begins accepting appointments for kids as young as 12 starting today

Asymptomatic testing will now be available for "priority groups" who are most likely to spread the COVID-19 virus to vulnerable or at-risk populations. File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS
A judge has found an Edmonton woman guilty of manslaughter in the death of her five-year-old daughter. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Edmonton mother found guilty of manslaughter in death of 5-year-old girl

The woman was charged and pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and assault with weapons, including a belt and a spatula

Alberta has 1,910 active cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Red Deer is reporting five active cases, with 108 recovered. (File photo)
Alberta identifies 2,042 new COVID-19 cases Saturday

Central zone has 2,917 active cases

Dr. Karina Pillay, former mayor of Slave Lake, Alta., is shown at her medical clinic in Calgary on Friday, April 16, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
10 years later: Former Slave Lake mayor remembers wildfire that burned through town

Alberta announced in 2011 that an unknown arsonist had recklessly or deliberately ignited the forest fire

The body of Brenda Ware, 35, was found along Highway 93 in Kootenay National Park on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (RCMP handout)
RCMP ask for tips after woman travelling from Alberta found dead in B.C. park

Brenda Ware was found along Highway 93 in the park, 54 kilometres north of the town of Radium

A caribou grazes on Baffin Island in a 2008 file photo. A last-ditch attempt to save some of Canada’s vanishing caribou herds is a step closer after a scientific review panel’s approval of a plan to permanently pen some animals and breed them to repopulate other herds. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kike Calvo via AP Images
Parks Canada captive caribou breeding proposal gets OK from scientific review panel

Wolf density in Jasper is low enough that the animals would not be expected to be a major threat

People pass the red hearts on the COVID-19 Memorial Wall mourning those who have died, opposite the Houses of Parliament on the Embankment in London, Wednesday, April 7, 2021. On May 3, the British government announced that only one person had died of COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kirsty Wigglesworth
For a view of a COVID-19 future, Canadians should look across the pond

Britain, like Canada, is one of the only countries in the world to delay second doses for several months

Nuns of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, carry some of her relics during a vigil of prayer in preparation for the canonization of Mother Teresa in the St. John in Latheran Basilica at the Vatican, Friday, Sept. 2, 2016. In which city did she do much of her charitable work? (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
QUIZ: How much do you know about these motherhood issues?

In honour of Mother’s Day, take this 10-question quiz

Canada’s chief public health officer is reminding Canadians even those who are fully vaccinated are not immune from transmitting the COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s top doctor warns full vaccination does not equal full protection from COVID-19

Post-inoculation, Theresa Tam says the risk of asymptomatic infection and transmission is far lower but not obsolete

Jennifer Coffman, owner of Truffle Pigs in Field, B.C., poses beside her business sign on Thursday, May 6, 2021, in this handout photo. Her restaurant and lodge have been hit hard by a closure of a section of the Trans-Canada Highway and by the British Columbia government discouraging Alberta residents from visiting during the pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Jennifer Coffman, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
‘Why we survive’: B.C. boundary towns struggle without Albertans during pandemic

Jennifer Coffman’s restaurant is located in the tiny community of Field, which relies on tourism

A rodeo south of Bowden drew a huge crowd on May 1 and 2, 2021. (Photo courtesy Mom’s Diner’s Facebook page)

Most Read