A highly contagious disease that causes mouth lesions that burst and weep is creating concern among horse owners locally and nationally, including Waco attorney Crawford Long and his wife, Jenice, whose 21-year-old registered Morgan horse named Masai suffered an encounter with the virus.

Masai turned his nose up at carrots, ran a low-grade fever and generally moped around his pasture at McLennan Community College’s Highlander Ranch, where he is boarded. A vet visit and blood tests revealed he was suffering from vesicular stomatitis, a malady in livestock typically spread by insects during extended spells of hot, dry weather.

The virus usually is not fatal for otherwise healthy animals but can cause so much discomfort they quit eating and lose weight. Confirmed and suspected cases of vesicular stomatitis have been reported in 37 Texas counties, including McLennan, and 170 “premises” have been quarantined, meaning animals showing signs of the illness faced forced isolation for 14 days, according to the Texas Animal Health Commission. The commission and the Waco-based Texas Farm Bureau continue to gather and disseminate information about the outbreak.

The virus, which primarily affects horses and cattle, has shown up in seven states, including Colorado, where it has been detected in 30 counties. Ohio does not appear on the list, but agriculture officials there will not allow animals from states with suspected or confirmed illnesses to attend the All American Quarter Horse Congress next month in Columbus, Ohio, according to an Associated Press report.

There is no specific treatment or cure for the illness, and animals cannot be inoculated against it, according to the Texas Animal Health Commission.

There have been reports of the virus in a few places in the Waco area, said Dr. Ronnie Edwards, a veterinarian with the Heart of Texas Equine Clinic.

“This is the time of year when we see it a lot,” Edwards said. “I’ve not personally treated a case, but there have been reports at Highlander Ranch and in the Gholson area, I believe, maybe some others. They have been under quarantine. It is thought to be spread by insects — flies, gnats, midges — that are concentrated along waterways, rivers, some kind of water source.”

The virus generates heightened alarm because its symptoms mimic those of hoof-and-mouth disease, a potentially deadly virus that attacks cloven-hoofed animals, including cattle. Horses are not cloven-hoofed.

In rare cases, vesicular stomatitis has been reported in humans. It causes symptoms similar to influenza, according to the American Association of Equine Practitioners.

“Be careful not to let horses sneeze in your face,” Edwards said.

He said treatment in animals includes the use of antibiotics to prevent secondary infections and making soft food available.

Wes Allison, president and CEO of the Heart O’ Texas Fair and Rodeo, said vesicular stomatitis has appeared on his radar screen. The illness is nothing new and would not prompt cancellation of equine events at the Extraco Events Center, Allison said. It poses little if any threat to the pampered animals arriving weekly for horse shows or the rodeo next month, he said.

“Some of this gets blown out of proportion,” Allison said. “This is an infectious disease, but for the most part, you lose animals that are not healthy to begin with. Horses that come around this place are all healthy and well taken care of. The owners sometimes treat their horses better than they treat themselves. Their horses are their livelihood.”

He said the complex complies with health regulations for livestock, including requiring verification by a veterinarian that an animal is healthy. He said odds are almost nil a horse or head of cattle would catch something there.

“We clean and sterilize after each event, using everything from bleach to commercially available sanitizing products,” Allison said.

McLennan Community College spokeswoman Lisa Elliott said Highlander Ranch canceled 56 riding lessons, a horse show and an equine class as a precaution after the vesicular stomatitis diagnosis in one horse there.

Long’s horse, Masai, was quarantined in its paddock for two weeks, Elliott said. Staffers and clients who board horses at the ranch were notified. Ranch hands continued to maintain “clean, sanitary measures,” including thoroughly cleaning the stalls and giving each animal its own bucket of feed and water. All horses were stalled at night to reduce exposure to flies, she said.

“Since the initial confirmed case, there have not been any other horses with symptoms or similar diagnoses,” Elliott said.

Crawford Long said he could not have been more pleased with how Highlander Ranch addressed the situation.

“This was a fluke thing,” Long said. “Our horse probably had not been off the grounds at all in nearly a year, and had not been around other horses much. Flies come up from the river, and maybe one bit him.”

He said the staff, led by Aimee Edwards, summoned a veterinarian in a timely fashion and quarantined Masai, who shares a fence line with one other horse. Facility officials made no attempt to keep the diagnosis under wraps and instead “got the place shut down and canceled shows,” Long said.

This year’s vesicular stomatitis outbreak started June 21, when the National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames, Iowa, confirmed the virus’ presence in Kinney County, which is east of Del Rio, according to a Texas Animal Health Commission press release. It since has been reported in Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming, according to the Associated Press.

In Texas, 158 of the 170 premises to have been placed in quarantine for suspected or confirmed cases have been released from that quarantine. That list includes two confirmed cases and three suspected cases in McLennan County, which now has no sites under quarantine, according to the commission.

Bastrop County east of Austin has emerged as the hotbed of vesicular stomatitis activity, with nine confirmed cases and 58 locations placed under quarantine.

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