Horse owners are up in arms over proposed plans to tighten federal policy on equine infectious anemia (EIA).
The incurable disease can cause anemia, anorexia, weakness and fever, among other symptoms and can be potentially deadly.
The disease has been a recurring problem for equine owners in Western Canada, one that has been federally reportable since the ’70s and that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has been keeping close watch on since 1998.
The CFIA is now changing tack to the disease. Led by a 2015 strategy paper, the agency says eradicating EIA from Canada is not feasible. Instead, the CFIA wants to tighten rules on horse movement and mandatory testing, particularly in Saskatchewan and Alberta where EIA has been most prevalent. The program would spill into Manitoba and British Columbia, though to a lesser degree.
Cain Quam, owner and trainer at Quam Performance Horses, worries that mandatory testing will mean a chill in horse clubs reliant on grassroots support, noting that they have commonly seen horse show entries drop by a third to a half whenever mandatory testing has been introduced.
“At that point, we can no longer feasibly budget a show at any kind of venue that would hold a larger group of horses, like, a larger show that would help us promote our sport in public, No. 1, but also generate revenue for our clubs so that we could continue to pay our bills and move forward,” he said.
The test is also an additional cost that might deter entries into the sport, Quam argues.
“I think there are clubs that will do and will continue to ask for a mandatory Coggins test and I think some of those clubs will continue to do that because of, maybe, the demographic or the people who participate in those clubs. That may not be a problem,” he said, referring to the province’s higher-level clubs, whose members are likely well accustomed to Coggins testing, the industry standard against EIA.
Those clubs are in the minority, however, he said, and the majority of horse and pony clubs in Saskatchewan are the very grassroots clubs that he argues will be hardest hit by the change.
Testing proponents disagree.
Manitoba had its own EIA scare last year, when a series of cases shut down horse sports in the Interlake and EIA fear spilled over into the province’s summer fair circuit, with some events winnowing down horse events or setting down their own testing requirements.
“Equestrian is definitely a very costly sport,” Robyn Bjornson, horse show organizer in Arborg said at the time. “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.”
The CFIA disputes the claim that changes will hurt grassroots clubs, at least for the program’s first phase when mandatory testing will be aimed at events with 200 horses or more.
“It is anticipated that the majority of horses will not be participating in such events, therefore no significant impact on membership in grassroots clubs is foreseen,” a CFIA spokesperson said in a written statement to the Co-operator. “It is important to note that many equestrian events (e.g. in Eastern Canada, the U.S., and other countries) already have this requirement.”
Changes would also remove quarantine options for the disease, and the CFIA will require any horse found positive for EIA to be put down.
The CFIA previously allowed a positive horse to be put in lifetime quarantine, although veterinarians have said that, in practice, the quarantine was often logistically impossible and the animal was put down anyway.
Opponents also note the changes would see the staged end of traceback activities and would severely limit CFIA interventions.
“They’re not going to trace back and they’re not going to do cross-fence testing, basically all the things that help them find new cases of EIA,” Quam said. “They’re basically just going to impose the mandatory Coggins testing on all the shows.”
It is his view, however, that showing horses are at a lower risk of EIA, while reservoirs of the disease exist in animals that do not find their way onto the circuit, and would therefore slip through the cracks of the program.
The proposed policy argues that new traceback activities will be more scientifically based and would, “help to identify additional points in time when virus transmission was most likely to have occurred and not be limited to the previous 30 days as with the current CFIA response.”
“The CFIA is looking at redesigning the EIA program to deploy resources in those activities that would be most effective in controlling the disease,” the CFIA said. “Horses that have been exposed to or contract EIA only pose a risk to other horses if they are commingling. The proposed new program would adopt a risk-based approach by targeting horses when/if they commingle.”
Critics such as Quam have also questioned the effectiveness and enforceability of the new rules, noting a clean test doesn’t mean an animal hasn’t subsequently been infected.
Quam suggested some owners may have tested horses that travel, but some remaining on farm and not tested, therefore opening a window for infection.
“Really, you’re getting a bit of a false sense of security,” he said.
Veterinarians and testing proponents, however, argue that blanket testing reduces the risk of an infected animal attending shows or spreading the disease through the province.
“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,” Dr. Chris Bell of Elder’s Equine Veterinary Service said last year. “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.”
For those that already travel, the new rules may mean little change, particularly in Manitoba where no movement permit will be required.
Various fairs and events already introduced a Coggins test requirement last year after an EIA scare disrupted the horse shows in the Interlake, while for horse and pony owners that commonly travel to larger events, both in Canada and the United States, Coggins tests are already routine.
Ron Kristjansson, general manager for the Provincial Exhibition of Manitoba, says they were generally happy with the proposal from the CFIA, although he would like to see season taken into account.
Biting flies are considered a major vector of the blood-to-blood disease. For winter and fall events, such as the exhibition’s Ag Ex in October or Royal Manitoba Winter Fair, Kristjansson argues that the risk is muted.
The organization launched its own boosted biosecurity program this year, including a mandatory EIA test for the Manitoba Summer Fair in June.
“We’ve got to be out ahead of it and make sure we’re looking after everyone’s horses that come to our fairs,” Kristjansson said.
The CFIA says it is taking public comment until June 18 and results may determine if the program is developed further. Program details are posted under the CFIA’s “Accountability” tab on its website.
Tabled for change
New EIA rules might depend a lot on where you live, if the CFIA’s proposal goes through.
Proposed changes would group Alberta and Saskatchewan as a primary control zone, while Manitoba, British Columbia and the Yukon would buffer those provinces as a secondary control zone.
In the initial year, any equine event with more than 200 animals would require owners to present a negative test no more than six months old to attend.
Moving horses in Saskatchewan and Alberta would have an additional hurdle, regardless of the size of the event, with a proposal for mandatory permits for any equine movement into, out of, or within the primary control zone.
The CFIA is posed to tighten requirements further after the first year of the program. Year two would extend the test requirement to events with 100 or more equines and all permanent racetracks. The proposal also leaves the door open to lowering the testing threshold to 50 animals, and expanding mandatory tests to all racetracks, assembly yards and auction marts.
The first year of the program would also see the end of 30-day traceback activities from the CFIA in Saskatchewan and Alberta, as well as limiting interventions to properties where the disease has been actively found on neighbouring “fenceline premises… if applicable.” By the second year, activities on fenceline premises would also be curbed.
Manitoba, and the rest of the secondary control zone, will also see 30-day traceback fall by the wayside, although not until the second year of the program.