Manitoba’s horse show circuit is feeling the effects of efforts to avoid further spreading equine infectious anemia (EIA) after several carriers were identified in the province.
The outbreak has shut down all horse shows in the Interlake region this summer and prompted other show organizers to require advance testing of all horses attending their events.
“There used to be a time where, in order to move from a show to a show, you would’ve had to have had an EIA (test, otherwise known as a Coggins test)… As the risk waned down, so did the surveillance,” Dr. Chris Bell, owner of Elder’s Equine Veterinary Service, said. “We’ve got into a period of time now in the past 10 to 15 years where horsemen are not used to having to require a Coggins test and so, as a result unfortunately, we don’t know exactly where from, but obviously a couple of positive carriers have snuck into the herd.”
As of late June, five animals in the province were confirmed infected with the potentially fatal virus, which can cause weakness, anorexia, fever, depression, jaundice and small hemorrhages under the tongue and eye, among other symptoms. Three infected animals were reported June 9 in the RM of St. Clements, followed two weeks later by two confirmed infections in the nearby RM of Armstrong.
On July 14, the Virden Animal Hospital Facebook page posted that another three premises were reported positive; one in the RM of Hanover, one in the RM of St. Andrews, and a second in the RM of Armstrong.
Flies main vector
Flies are a main vector for EIA as they may bite infected animals then transfer the blood-borne disease to any healthy equine they bite afterwards. Medical equipment, such as syringes, may also transmit the virus, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) says. Foals may also contract the virus from an infected mare or through their sire’s semen. Such infected foals often abort or die within months of birth.
Arborg is so far the only stop on the Heartland Rodeo Association schedule to require a negative Coggins test. Some of its horse events were suddenly cut as a result of EIA.
Pony rides, chuckwagon racing, vaulting demonstrations and horse bucking events were all cancelled during the July 14-16 fair and rodeo. The North Interlake Show Circuit, normally a draw for up-and-coming riders throughout the region, was also pulled and organizers have cancelled all other shows this year.
The circuit committee expressed concern that several positive-tested horses had attended events prior to the virus being detected and that previous negative tests may now be false negatives.
Robyn Bjornson, Arborg’s horse show organizer and member of the North Interlake Show Circuit committee, said going ahead without testing would have been “very irresponsible” given EIA cases in the region.
Bucking events were originally set to go forward, but cancelled after the rodeo’s stock supplier reported six positive tests and was put under quarantine.
“It was a bit of a juggling match,” Bjornson said. “We definitely didn’t anticipate the bucking stock not coming, but we all pulled together and it ended up turning out OK. The spectator attendance was definitely up. We have a very strong tractor pull and that really saved us, and we have a really strong kids’ zone.”
Competitors stay home
More steer wrestling was also added. Barrel racing, however, took a major hit, according to Bjornson.
“We were down probably close to 50 competitors,” she said. “Day 1 on the rodeo, we were down 60 entries.
“It was definitely a very sad Friday night. Usually we have a big horse show in attendance and we have all the bucking stock and all the corrals would have been filled and you looked over the fairgrounds on Friday and there wasn’t one horse trailer.”
The Arborg Agricultural Society says any future horse events will also require a negative Coggins test.
Leighton Dyck, Heartland Rodeo Association bareback and saddle bronc director, said EIA has been a “continuous” discussion with various rodeo committees.
“You advise people to do their tests and look after their horse, but we can only do so much as an association — really make it known to everybody so that everybody at least knows it’s out there,” he said. “Really, when you take horses off your own property and take them to an event like that where there’s so many horses around, you kind of do it at your own risk.”
Entry numbers have not been significantly affected by EIA concern, he said.
Concern has since spread outside of the hard-hit regions of the Interlake. The Dufferin Agricultural Society also required a negative Coggins test during this year’s Carman Fair July 13-15.
However, Jane Martin, Strathclair Agricultural Society treasurer, said mandatory testing was discussed but not implemented during their fair July 18.
“We kind of inquired around to see what other fairs were doing and stuff, and people just, if they didn’t feel comfortable, they just didn’t come to the fair,” she said.
Entries dropped only slightly because of EIA, she added.
There is no known cure or vaccine for the virus and the CFIA requires that any animal testing positive be either put down or quarantined for life. Any infected horse is considered a lifetime carrier of the disease.
In practice, it means that EIA is often a death sentence for an animal and a loss of time, emotional and monetary investment for horse owners, although the CFIA may offer reimbursement if an animal is ordered destroyed. As such, the Coggins test requirement has met resistance from some corners.
“You hear it a lot from when you talk to different people,” Dyck said. “There are some people who don’t want to do it because you’re afraid that if your horse comes back positive, you lose your horse.”
Others are concerned about the cost, he said.
Bjornson said it is still worthwhile.
“Equestrian is definitely a very costly sport,” she said. “People put a lot of money and time into their horses, their trailers, their tacks. To get a $50 test and get the whole Manitoba herd down to a negative herd so that everybody feels safe to move around, I think is very vital from a provincial standpoint to go forward.”
Coggins tests range in price. Kevin Boese, Gilbert Plains-Grandview Agricultural Society president, says tests in his area range up to $150 per animal.
The Gilbert Plains-Grandview Agricultural Society Fair and Rodeo will also require a negative test, but not until next year.
“If we were going to make it mandatory, we would’ve had to cancel the fair,” he said. “Our stock contractor, he has 200 horses and he didn’t have the $20,000 to put out there to get his horses tested and our chuckwagon guys, they all said they weren’t testing.”
More testing next year
The fair ran July 21-23 and lost some entries in both the rodeo and light horse show due to EIA concern, although other event entries were strong, he said.
Despite not requiring it, tests were encouraged and the ag society asked owners to take precautions such as fly spray and fly nets. The society also sprayed insecticide over the grounds prior to the event.
Critics have also argued that infected animals may still slip through the system if they are infected after testing is done.
Most ag societies with mandatory testing have also included a time bracket to limit this risk. Arborg required tests be done no sooner than April 1. Dufferin said no earlier than May 28.
“Testing is kind of the best method we have in order to try and identify horses that are currently carrying the virus so that we can limit the spread of the virus further,” Bell said, “but, with all testing, it is an issue where you only know the status as of the day of the test. The reason for wanting to test the animals is to avoid grouping animals that have unknown statuses.”
He further advocated testing as a means of definitively grouping confirmed EIA-negative animals with other negative animals.
“I think, if we were to just put our head in the sand and say, ‘Well, I’m not going to test horses because we don’t like the idea that there could be one positive,’ then that would take one horse that may need to be put down and possibly translate it into 20 horses that need to be put down if that horse was to travel and transmit it,” he said.
Ideally, he added, owners would also test animals this fall and again in spring 2018 to weed out carriers in this latest outbreak.