Biosecurity plan: one program doesn’t fit all

It’s important to consider the people and the facilities as well as the animals when developing an on-farm program

A strong offence is an effective defence to stop the spread of infectious diseases in horses, says a leading veterinarian, and that includes an on-farm biosecurity program.

Brandy Burgess of the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine, director of infection control at the U of G Veterinary Teaching Hospital, and a past grad student at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon, spoke about biosecurity at the Saskatchewan Equine Expo in Saskatoon last month.

Biosecurity includes all the precautions necessary to prevent and manage infectious diseases in horses. When horses travel to events or share living space with horses that travel, they are at higher risk of contracting infectious disease.

“Biosecurity technically is sort of the gates and padlocks idea where you keep stuff off the farm. Infection control is really related to how it’s transmitted among animals within a population and throughout a facility,” Burgess said.

“I tend to lump those two things together. If it comes on our farm it might not get passed around, or if we noticed that, how are we going to respond so we don’t cause a bigger problem for neighbours and maybe the province as a whole. You don’t want to be the centre of an outbreak.”

Burgess said it’s important to consider the people and the facilities as well as the animals when developing an on-farm program.

“You want to characterize prevalence and evaluate risks. So you’re going to need to get your veterinarians to help you think about how likely some of these diseases are on the farm,” she said.

Because every facility and horse population are different, each program needs to be custom tailored. That means determining the owners’ level of risk aversion as well as how much it might cost.

“Depending on what types of animals you have coming on, those types of strategies that you use will be different,” she said.

“It really needs to be facility specific.

“You’ve got different layout, you’ve got different concerns, you have different animals that come in and part of that’s because of the people that manage it, your administrators, will have different risk aversions and different concerns.”

A risk assessment is the first step. Think about what could go wrong and how important it is.

“Everybody’s goals are a little bit different, depending on your risk aversion and depending on the types of horses that you have coming and going off your property,” said Burgess.

“If you’re a closed group of horses and they don’t really go anywhere, your risks are pretty low. If you’ve got horses that are transient and coming and going, that’s a little different ballgame, so you’re going to probably take different measures to keep them protected,” she said.

“So make sure that we’re matching our efforts with our concerns is the other side of that.”

For infection control to work, Burgess said the “basic, common sense” thing horse owners need to do is disrupt the cycle of transmission: how and where a virus, bacteria or parasite comes in contact with the animals.

Much of it is simple but it does cost time and money.

“I can do it anywhere along that cycle so I can make my horse less susceptible and I’ve effectively broken that cycle. I can decrease the contact between horses or between people and horses, or the utensils (commonly used things) and horses. So, a lot of that is when we talk about separation or the disinfectants, we’re effectively disrupting that cycle,” she said.

Having clean hands cannot be underestimated and people should thoroughly wash between and after handling horses, as well as before eating and drinking.

“One of the most important things you can do to prevent disease is hand hygiene. If you end up with your hands visibly soiled, especially with feces or urine, you should be washing them,” she said.

Disease risk is created by a combination of five factors, which includes horses, people, environment, access and movement:

  • Horses: What looks normal and healthy varies between horses, and each has different levels of infectious disease risk.
  • People: Bacteria can be carried from sick to healthy horses on clothes, equipment and hands. Some equine diseases can also affect people.
  • Environment: Micro-organisms can remain on surfaces, equipment, soil, manure, wood and water for a long time. Germs can multiply and survive depending on weather and temperature.
  • Access: managing access to horses requires minimizing contact with humans, pets, livestock and wildlife, as well as separating horses with different risk levels.
  • Movement: Off the farm, horses may be exposed to infectious diseases carried by unfamiliar people and horses.

Determining which horses are high and low risk for infectious diseases and maintaining separation between the two groups is important.

However, Burgess noted most facilities cannot totally isolate high-risk horses: those that travel off-farm to various events, those that have frequent contact with unfamiliar horses and people, those that have recently visited a veterinary clinic or hospital and those that have travelled in a borrowed trailer.

Low-risk horses stay at home, have contact with a limited number of people and are free of infections.

Brood mares and foals should be housed separately from other horses. Pregnant mares and foals may have a higher risk of infection.

Burgess said owners should take care of the healthy, happy horses first before taking care of a sick one.

She recommended the Saskatchewan government’s Horse Biosecurity Guidebook as a resource, as well as the equine infection control workbook from Colorado State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

A list of horse health concerns is a good starting point when developing a biosecurity plan.

“Then they really need to go to an expert, which would be their veterinarian, to help them tailor that to really fit, not only what their concerns are, but make sure that their concerns are realistic,” Burgess said.

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