Keeping horses healthy depends on cleaning

Not all disinfectants are created equal when it comes to protecting horses from bacteria and illness in barns, stables and stalls.

“Disinfectants all have a label claim on them so we really need to have an understanding of the types of bugs you’re trying to kill. Make sure that you’re picking a disinfectant that makes sense,” said Brandy Burgess of the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine and director of infection control at the U of G Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

The former grad student at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine spoke about biosecurity at the Saskatchewan Equine Expo in Saskatoon Feb. 15.

Finding an effective disinfectant for barn use can be a daunting task for horse owners.

“A lot of times they’ll just end up using a household product, which isn’t terrible, but it’s probably not the best thing they could use,” Burgess said.

Disinfection doesn’t come in a bottle, said the epidemiologist. It is a process to break or disrupt the cycle of transmission of infectious diseases in horses.

The effectiveness of disinfectants varies greatly and depends on the amount of organic debris, concentration of disinfectant and contact time on surfaces.

For the purpose of biosecurity, a surface is considered free of germs by following all steps in a cleaning process:

  • Remove all visible debris because disinfectants generally don’t kill viruses and bacteria in organic matter such as urine, feces, bedding and dirt. Bleach and ammonium products are not effective. Accelerated hydrogen peroxide products such as Virkon and phenolics will work for minimal organic debris.
  • All surfaces should be scrubbed with detergent to loosen grime.

“It’s really that scrubbing with the detergent that does the best job of removing bugs,” said Burgess. “If I scrub a concrete surface with a detergent, I can drop the bug count on that surface by about 90 percent.

“It’s not really about the disinfectant. If there’s one thing you’re going to spend time on, scrub with the detergent, whether that’s your trailer, stall, floor. That’ll get you a long ways. And when you’re dealing with mostly healthy horses, it’s probably good enough.”

  • Surfaces should be rinsed well and allowed to dry.
  • Apply an appropriate disinfectant at recommended dilution and follow manufacturers’ recommendations on the product label.
  • Disinfectant must stay on surface for the entire recommended time. More product may need to be applied if it’s hot due to evaporation. Allow longer contact time in cold temperatures.
  • Surfaces should be completely rinsed to remove micro-organisms and prevent horse exposure to chemicals.

Burgess said antiseptics such as iodine and chlorhexidine are used to kill infectious agents on the horse’s skin but are not effective for decontaminating surfaces, whereas disinfectants are designed to clean surfaces and should not be used on skin.

She recommended that horse owners consult a veterinarian when choosing the best disinfectant for the intended use.

Quality and materials vary widely among facilities and some surfaces cannot be completely cleaned.

“That’s part of the problem with the horse surfaces is I can’t actually get the debris off and when I put the disinfectant on there, it’s not actually going to kill all the bugs and we want it to,” said Burgess.

“That’s why it’s important for us to have those surfaces be as cleanable as they can be.”

Unsealed wood and dirt floors can retain infectious agents for a long time. Concrete, metal and some rubber and plastics have the most cleanable surfaces. The smoother the surface, the more effective the disinfectant.

It takes more effort to control infection when travelling with horses. Burgess said it’s important to maintain a biosecurity program, particularly while travelling, to keep horses healthy on the road and back at home, especially when it’s impractical to isolate a horse:

  • If the trailer has been used by other horses, scrub and disinfect it before and after use.
  • Bring your own tack, feed and water buckets and cleaning tools and don’t share or borrow.
  • Avoid common water troughs and feeders. The horse bucket should be filled from a hose or pump with clean water.
  • Consider creating a portable stall. If using a stall at an event, clean and disinfect it first.
  • Try to avoid horses’ to nose-to-nose contact.
  • Do not allow visitors to touch or pet horses.

It’s impossible to keep all bugs off the farm and prevent them from spreading, said Burgess.

“This becomes important because there’s no such thing as zero risk. Even if you do a really good job, you’re going to have stuff come on your farm,” she said.

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