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Vets urge shots for West Nile in horses

Diana Putney of Langley pauses with her 6-month-old colt, Zipity Doo Dah, and a mare. Putney said she plans to have all of her horses vaccinated against the West Nile virus later this month.  - Gayle Saran
Diana Putney of Langley pauses with her 6-month-old colt, Zipity Doo Dah, and a mare. Putney said she plans to have all of her horses vaccinated against the West Nile virus later this month.
— image credit: Gayle Saran

Langley horseman Randy Thompson will vaccinate his 29 horses against the West Nile Virus.

Thompson learned a difficult lesson several years ago when he didn't vaccinate against another equine virus, Potomac Fever.

"I owned two of the seven horses diagnosed with Potomac Fever in Washington state," he said. "One of my horses was able to recover with expensive medical attention but the other died."

This time around, Thompson will follow his veterinarian's advice on vaccinations and will protect his horses against West Nile virus, since traces of the disease have been found in this state.

"We don't want our horses sick," he said.

This year South Whidbey horse owners are facing the question of whether to vaccinate or not to vaccinate their horses against West Nile virus. The virus is not in Washington yet, but health officials say it is on its way.

Mosquitos spread the virus to horses and humans after biting infected birds. West Nile causes a type of encephalitis in horses.

Several Whidbey Island large animal veterinarians are recommending vaccinations as a precaution, even though only one horse -- which was brought in from North Dakota -- has been found to have the virus in Washington.

Oak Harbor veterinarians Robert Moody and Kent Freer have vaccinated about 200 horses during the past month. They are recommending horses get the three vaccination shots before the next mosquito season, which starts next spring. To be effective, two shots must be given three weeks apart with a third booster in the spring.

For horse owners who already vaccinate against a number of other equine diseases, such as tetanus, the cost of the West Nile shots is a factor. The price for the shots is comparable with other equine vaccinations in the $15 to $20 range. Freer and Moody are forgoing the cost of the barn calls they make -- $30 to $50 -- if a horse owner has 10 or more animals vaccinated.

"Some of my customers are gathering their horses together in one spot to save that cost," Freer said.

West Nile virus has been moving west across the United States since 1999 when the first cases of humans with West Nile were diagnosed in New York. There have been a handful of cases of West Nile striking horses in other states including Washington, cases verified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Horse owner Tom Burkholder of Freeland is not going to take a chance and will vaccinate. He owns seven horses he considers valuable and will have them vaccinated.

"I don't feel it's worth the risk," Burkholder said. "They are pretty helpless critters against something like this ... they depend on me to take good care of them."

Island County health officials do not expect to see West Nile Virus in the county before next year. So far there haven't been any cases in Island County but the first dead bird with the virus was found in the state in Pend Oreille County, Wash. last month.

"It was just matter of time before it got here," said Dr. Roger Case, the health officer for Island County.

Case said the county's health department is on the lookout for the virus, surveiling dead birds and monitoring mosquito breeding areas. He said the public can help fight the spread of the virus by eliminating areas of stagnate water on private property. This water is a breeding ground for mosquitos.

Case said property owners with still ponds and other bodies of water can kill off mosquitoes by stocking them with mosquito-eating goldfish, and by providing nesting areas for birds.

While he is giving out cautionary information, Case said the chances of a human being bitten by a mosquito carrying the virus, and then contracting the disease are very slim.

The primary carrier is the culex mosquito but according to vet, Moody, several other species can carry it as well. According to information released from the Centers for Disease Control Prevention, there is no documented evidence of person-to-person, animal-to-animal, or animal-to-person transmission of West Nile virus.

Mosquito abatement seems to be the best protection against the virus.

Diana and Gary Putney have set up a complex underground drainage system from the barns and pasteur to a pond stocked with fish and frogs. The couple also have a number of swallow and bat nesting areas.

"We're careful about not letting buckets of water sit around and during the summer months we use a fly repellant on our horses," Gary Putney said.

West Nile Virus equine vaccine has been given provisional approval only by the Department of Agriculture. This concerned Oak Harbor vet, Freer. Even so, he took his own advice and vaccinated three horses he owns.

INFO BOX

Stop the spread of disease

A Mud and Manure Management Seminar,sponsored by the Whidbey Island Conservation District is scheduled Oct. 26 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Trinity Lutheran Church in Freeland. Proper management of these factors can cut the disease rates among horses.

Gayle Saran/staff photo

Diana Putney of Langley with her six-month -old colt Zipity Doo Dah and mare, will have all of her horses vaccinated for the West Nile virus later this month.

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