Equine influenza (horse flu) is the disease caused by strains of influenza A that are enzootic in horse species. Equine influenza occurs globally, and is caused by two main strains of virus: equine-1 (H7N7) and equine-2 (H3N8). The disease has a nearly 100% infection rate in an unvaccinated horse population with no prior exposure to the virus.
While equine influenza is historically not known to affect humans, impacts of past outbreaks have been devastating due to the economic reliance on horses for communication (postal service), military (cavalry) and general transportation. In modern times, though, the ramifications of equine influenza are most clear in the horse racing industry.
Horses with horse flu can run a fever, have a dry, hacking cough, have a runny nose, and become depressed and reluctant to eat or drink for several days, but they usually recover in two to three weeks.
An 1872 report on equine influenza describes the disease as:
"An epizootic specific fever of a very debilitating type, with inflammation of the respiratory mucous membrane, and less frequently of other organs, having an average duration of ten to fifteen days, and not conferring immunity from a second attack in subsequent epizootics."
— James Law, Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture for the year 1872
Equine influenza is caused by several strains of the influenza A virus endemic to horses. Viruses that cause equine influenza were first isolated in 1956. The viruses can cross the species barrier to cause an epizootic disease in humans, and recently, in dogs.
The disease is primarily spread between infected horses. Exposure to infected waste materials (urine and manure) in stables leads to rapid spread of the disease.
A comprehensive report describing the disease - compiled in response to the 1872 outbreak of the disease in North America - provided a thorough examination of the history of the disease.
The report notes putative cases dating as far back as Hippocrates and Livius. Absyrtus, a Greek veterinarian from 330 CE, described a disease in the horse population having the general characters of influenza, which the report mentions as the earliest clear record of equine influenza in the lower animals.
The report notes the next recorded equine influenza case in 1299, the same year that a catarrhal epidemic affected Europe. Spanish records noted cases in which "The horse carried his head drooping, would eat nothing, ran from the eyes, and there was hurried beating of the flanks. The malady was epidemic, and in that year one thousand horses died."
Prevalence of influenza is found in historic records in the centuries of the Middle Ages, but direct implication of horses is not always clear. Neither are recorded instances of record deaths among horses and other animals clear on the exact cause of death.
1872 North American outbreak
An epizootic outbreak of equine influenza during 1872 in North America became known as "The Great Epizootic of 1872". The outbreak is known as the "most destructive recorded episode of equine influenza in history". In 1870 three-fourths of Americans lived in rural areas (towns under 2500 population, and farms). Horse and mule power was used for moving wagons and carriages, and pulling plows and farm equipment. The census of 1870 counted 7.1 million horses and 1.1 million mules as well as 39 millions humans. With most urban horses and mules incapacitated for a week or two, humans used wheelbarrows and pulled the wagons. About 1% of the animals died, and the rest fully recovered.
The first cases of the disease were reported from Ontario, Canada. By October 1, 1872, the first case occurred in Toronto. It took only three days before all the street car horses and major livery stables were affected. By the middle of October, the disease had reached Montreal, Detroit, and New England. On October 25, 1872, The New York Times reported on the extent of the outbreak, claiming that nearly all public stables in the city had been affected, and that the majority of the horses owned in the private sector had essentially been rendered useless to their owners. Only days later, the Times went on to report that 95% of all horses in Rochester, New York, had been affected, while the disease was also making its way quickly through the state of Maine and had already affected all fire horses in the city of Providence, Rhode Island.
On October 30th, 1872, The New York Times reported that a complete suspension of travel had been noted in the state. The same report also took note of massive freight backups being caused by the lack of transportation ability that was arising as a result of the outbreak. Cities like Buffalo and New York were left without effective ways to move merchandise through the streets, and even the Erie Canal was left with boats full of goods idling in its waters because they were pulled by horses. By November, many states were reporting cases. The street railway industry ground to a halt in late 1872.
Boston was hard hit by a major fire downtown on November 9th as firemen pulled the necessary firefighting equipment by hand. The city commission investigating the fire found that fire crews' response times were delayed by only a matter of minutes. The city then began to buy steam-powered equipment.
In New York 7,000 of the city's approximately 11,000 horses fell ill. and mortality rates ranged between 1% and 10%. Many horses were unable to stand in their stalls. Those that could stand coughed violently and were too weak to pull any loads or support riders. The vast majority of affected horses – save for those 10% that died as a result – were back to full health by the following spring.
2007 Australian outbreak
Australia had remained free of equine influenza until an outbreak in August 2007. While the virus was successfully contained and Australia has returned to its equine influenza-free status, the outbreak had significant effects on the country's horse racing industry.
Prevention of equine influenza outbreaks are maintained through vaccines and hygiene procedures. Countries that are equine influenza-free will normally impose strict and rigorous quarantine measures.
Vaccines (ATCvet codes: QI05 inactivated, QI05 live, plus various combinations) are a major defense against the disease. Vaccination schedules generally require a primary course of vaccines, followed by booster shots. Standard schedules may not maintain absolutely foolproof levels of protection, and more frequent administration is advised in high-risk situations.
Sources and notes
- University of Sydney RIRDC equine research and development website
- Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture for the year 1872]
- from Judson (1873) p 105
- Running Like Wildfire - A Study of the most destructive recorded episode of equine influenza in history.
- see "Changes in the Horse Industry"
- James P. McClure, "The epizootic of 1872: Horses and disease in a nation in motion." New York History (1998) 79#1 pp: 4-22.
- "The Horse Plague: Fifteen Thousand Horses in this City Unfit for Use." The New York Times [New York] 25 Oct. 1872:
- “The Horse Distemper: Further Increase of the Epidemic in this City” The New York Times 26 Oct. 1872:
- Adoniram B. Judson, "History and Course of the Epizoötic among Horses upon the North American Continent in 1872-73." Public health papers and reports 1 (1873): 88-109 online
- "The Horse Plague: Fifteen Thousand Horses in this City Unfit for Use." The New York Times 25 Oct. 1872
- "The Terrible Horse Disease." The New York Times 30 Oct. 1872:
- Brian J. Cudahy, Cash, Tokens, and Transfers: A History of Urban Mass Transit in North America (1990) pp 14-15
- Ballard C. Campbell, ed. American Disasters: 201 Calamities That Shook the Nation (2008) pp 131-32
- McClure, "The epizootic of 1872: Horses and disease in a nation in motion."
- Judson, "History and Course of the Epizoötic among Horses upon the North American Continent in 1872-73."
- UAE Equestrian & Racing Federation
- FEI guidelines
- Campbell, Ballard C. ed. American Disasters: 201 Calamities That Shook the Nation (2008) pp 131-32
- Judson, Adoniram B. "History and Course of the Epizoötic among Horses upon the North American Continent in 1872-73." Public health papers and reports 1 (1873): 88-109 online
- Law, James/ "Equine Influenza Epidemic" from Commissioner of Agriculture: 1872 Annual Report (Washington, 1872) online
- McClure, James P. "The epizootic of 1872: Horses and disease in a nation in motion." New York History (1998) 79#1 pp: 4-22.
- Equi Flu Net
- EI Vaccination Debate - Australia equinetrader.co.nz
- COntrolling Equine Influenza - Japan equinetrader.co.nz
- Great Epizootic of 1872 equinetrader.co.nz
- Caring for a horse with equine influenza Horsetalk.co.nz (NZ)
- Equine flu resources: Q&A, latest news, contacts Horsetalk.co.nz (NZ)
- Veterinary Record
- Equine Quarterly Disease Surveillance Reports
- Horse Flu