Equine Coronavirus – A Black Swan Event
When I first heard of the concept of a Black Swan event, I was more than intrigued. Curious enough in fact, that I read the New York Times bestseller: The Black Swan, the Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2007, Random House, 300 pages and notes, etc). This very complicated treatise was based upon the story of the black swan: basically people were convinced that all swans were white. When a black swan was first discovered, it literally, in today’s vernacular, rocked their world.
This shock over the unexpected ever occurring, the inability to imagine the impossible, the reliance on concentrating on things we already know without considering those that we don’t, comprises a black swan experience.
What, you ask, does a black swan have in common with coronavirus ( ECoV)? My horses contracting coronavirus, an illness I had never even heard of before, was a black swan event for me. It, truly, rocked my world.
I discovered that all the care, preparation and concern in the world is no defense against a black swan, when it happens to you. Enough time has now passed for me to reflect and tell my story as a cautionary tale on how to protect your horses from the coronavirus.
It started out innocently enough. I love sharing my farm and hosted a Cowboy/Western Dressage Symposium in April of this year. Four horses, owned by people I knew, were brought in to be used as demonstration mounts for the program. I carefully prepared the stalls for our guest horses, nearly stripped and bedded each one deeply with fresh shavings. I had the owners provide their own water buckets and hay. After the event, lasting about eight hours, I carefully picked the stalls clean, but did not strip them, and put my horses back in them that evening. And so began an odyssey I could not foresee. Unbeknownst to me, one of those horses was an asymptomatic carrier of coronavirus. I know it came from one of these horses because none of my horses had been off my property for quite a while.
About four days later, Treasure, who has not had a sick day in the five and a half years I have had him, was off his feed. Now in Treasure’s world, not eating is truly a tragedy. But while he seemed upset about his loss of appetite, he had no other signs of colic. Ironically, I had just stopped by a neighbor’s barn that morning to administer Banamine to her horse that was colicking, so I figured something must be in the “air“. I gave Treasure a dose of Banamine too and kept an eye on him. When his appetite had not returned by the following morning, I knew something could be seriously wrong and arranged to have the vet out. No temp, no problems with gut sounds or any other signs of colic, she asked me if he could have ulcers. Ulcers? Treasure? If Treasure has ulcers, then every horse in the world does. Treasure leads the most enviable life of leisure and luxury of any horse I know and has the attitude to go with it. No way the words Treasure and ulcers should be used in the same sentence. She tubed him, gave him more Banamine and he seemed fine the next day.
Within a day or two, Ruffian, the donkey (or Princess Ruffian as she prefers to be called), seemed just a little off her feed. But even a little off and I worry because donkeys can go downhill and crash fast. But it remained just a little and there was no way a thermometer was going to meet her hind end without serious medication on both our parts, so I figured it was just something in the bale of hay I had been feeding that must have been bothering both her and Treasure.
A few days later, on April 15th, my way of looking at horse life was about to change forever, and it wasn‘t because for the first time in a very long time that I had actually gotten my taxes done a day early, on the 14th. After the best lesson ever on my eight year old horse, Denali, I went out to feed that evening, and he was standing in the corner of his stall obviously morose and out of sorts. This was truly unbelievable to me, and I now realized something else, quite unexpected, was going on. As I feed very late in the evening, I called my vet right then and told her that she needed to come by my barn on the way to her office in the morning to check on Denali. I thought he would be fine to wait until then as I had administered Banamine to him to help him through the night.
By the time she arrived early the next morning, my foster horse, Bubba was now also sick, and Denali seemed more sick then he was the night before. Banamine is the extent of my medical expertise and I needed some major help right away. Both horses had high temps with Bubba’s being worse. She treated both horses by giving them fluids so they could handle the Banamine as well as help with hydration. Then we did a “wait and see”. By that evening, I was frantically checking temps every 10 minutes or so. Thankfully both horses were sick enough and compliant enough to allow me to continually stick things up their respective butts. One thing I have learned is not to rely on digital thermometers when dealing with high temps – they are inaccurate and the readings can vary substantially.
By now, my vet was in close contact with Oregon State University Hospital (OSU) because, while Bubba, the 24 year old foster horse, temp was staying stable and even going down with cold hosing, Denali’s was continuing to climb. The hospital and vet were both encouraging me to keep Denali home and treat him myself through the night with the plan to take him in the next morning. But by 12:00am with his temp well over 105 degrees and quickly approaching 106, no cold hosing was offering me any encouragement. I rapidly approached the extent of my comfort zone. I called my vet and told her to call OSU and tell them I would shortly be on my way.
A note on cold hosing that I learned from my vet: when you cold hose a horse for cooling purposes, you hose off their lower neck, belly and extremities (legs). Apparently hosing them on the tops of the bodies can actually cause them to be warmer.
The one coherent idea I had during this entire ordeal was to follow my vet’s instruction to use isopropyl alcohol as a rub as it is ‘colder’ than water. I decided, if alcohol was cold, then putting the alcohol in the freezer would be even colder (alcohol can’t freeze). And amazingly enough, I actually had a gallon of the stuff in my barn! So right before I loaded him in the trailer, leaving all the vents and windows open in it as well, I sponged him dripping wet with ice cold alcohol all over the areas my vet had directed, threw him in the trailer and we were on the road by 1:00am. The cold alcohol and draft from the windows and vents were probably key in saving his life, by the time we got to the hospital his temp was down a few degrees and with all the supportive care he received upon his arrival, never spiked again.
The vet at OSU was thankful for my arrival in the middle of the night, once they read the results of Denali’s white blood cell count – they were at extremely dangerous numbers. If I had relied on the blood work taken by my vet less than 24 hours before, with results not to be received until later in that day, I would have made the wrong decision. His values were crashing and I would have had no way of realizing that was happening nor would have been able to get him to the hospital fast enough. The results from the initial blood work, while not normal, would not have given me the impetus to get him to the hospital in time, if I had waited and based my decision to go or not to go on that one indicator.
This story could go on and on, because it did. Denali spent four and a half days in the isolation unit at OSU. Bubba stayed home but his white cell count made it apparent he needed to be treated with antibiotics, not to treat the virus, but to protect him against any opportunistic bacteria waiting to take advantage of his weakened state. A couple of days later, Nautilus also came down with it in spite of having enacted biosecurity measures once Denali got sick. Fortunately, his case was more like Treasure’s. Only Rio did not get sick, probably due to him not being as much of a foody as the other horses, he doesn’t lick the bowl clean so to speak, which, while it makes him a hard keeper, probably saved him from getting ill.
What you can learn from my experience:
– Keep a gallon of isopropyl alcohol in your barn.
– Purchase an old fashioned mercury thermometer. The digital ones may be okay for normal use. But in extraordinary cases, when nth degrees really matter, mercury is the way to go. Even my vet’s digital thermometer showed discrepancies, and also different readings than mine when we tested it. The principal vet in her clinic only uses mercury and now we both understand why.
– After having stall guests: strip stalls, wash them down with a soap solution, wash all manure picks, brooms and anything else used in the stalls as well. If you are super paranoid, sweep down the aisle way with soapy water. As an opponent of bleach, I was glad to know that soap is sufficient for this application.
– Never, ever let your horse drink from a communal watering trough. I never have and while this wouldn’t have helped in the case of coronavirus as it is fecal/orally transmitted, it could save your horse from contracting other contagious illnesses.
– If you hand graze your horse in areas where other horses have been: lead your horse away from grazed areas or paths where horses may have stepped. This virus can live in the manure for up to a week after it has been shed and a horse could easily have manure stuck in its hoof and then transport it onto edible grass as it walks.
– If a horse comes down with a unidentifiable fever, or is just off his feed for more than one meal, do a fecal test. It could save you the heartache of an entire barn getting sick, with the risk of losing life as well as transferring this virulent disease to others in your community. One of the stated signs of coronavirus is diarrhea, but none of my affected horses had that symptom, so don‘t rely on that to direct your decision making. The virus can be shed for up to 3 weeks, and while the veterinary profession is recommending a 3 week quarantine period, my research shows that it can then live up to another week in the manure, so I practiced and recommend a 4 week quarantine period: no horses on or off the property, necessary humans only allowed with proper biosecurity measures enforced.
– Institute biosecurity measures immediately without waiting for results of the fecal sample. Foot baths and separate stall cleaning tools is the place to start, and then you can go absolutely crazy with taking additional measures, because as I soon came quickly to realize, “poop is everywhere” in a barn.
– Do your own research. Coronavirus is a newly recognized illness due to the fact that technology can now identify it thru fecal sample testing. But due to it’s newness over just the past two years, information on the internet is limited. According to my research, this virus is primarily virulent during colder months of the year. But according to the OSU vet, she sees cases year round.
– This is not a state vet reportable disease, so don’t look to authorities to offer any security like they do for Strangles or EHV. My vet did contact the state and, while she made a plea for it being reportable, there is no plan to make it one. Quarantining is voluntary, and I strongly urge horse owners to be vigilant about this.
My 2014 motto, ironically enough, already was “you don’t know what you don’t know”. Not so ironically, I was shamefully applying it more to other people than to myself. This experience truly changed my life. I am still assimilating the extent to which that is true. I never imagined I could spend so much money, so quickly, and for nothing that I did wrong; that I have a hobby that can cost so much when there are so many more important problems to spend money on in this world. As my vet put it, fortunately I had the choice to take my horse to OSU, what about the person for whom that wouldn’t be an option. And while statistically, most horses are more like Treasure and Nautilus, there will also be cases like Denali and Bubba – and no one can predict or explain what each horse’s reaction will be.
So even though I “read the book”, and no matter how much I want to believe that all swans are white, no matter how well I think I am protecting my little herd of horses, now I truly know, I can never be prepared enough, ready enough, strong enough not to have my world rocked by the next black swan event. With this information, I hope the coronavirus will never be yours.