by Hope Holland

With all the bad news about ticks and Lyme disease it would appear for the equine community there is more to come. Horses are now showing symptoms of Lyme disease that are not only concerning in that they inhibit the work they are trained and used for but also possibly dangerous to those who ride and work with them.

Lyme disease in horses can include one or more of these symptoms: High body temperature, appetite loss, losing weight, swelling of the joints anywhere in the body, excessive sleepiness, sore muscles, irritability, hypersensitive skin, shifting from leg to leg, weakness, changes in behavior, lameness/stiffness, refusing to walk or exercise, laminitis and paralysis.

Any one of these symptoms can take a valuable show horse or a trusty trail riding mount out of work immediately. All these symptoms may can be concerning, but irritability in a 1,200-pound animal can be dangerous if it becomes excessive. Chronic laminitis is a total game changer and can eventually lead to the humane destruction of the animal.

Kris Morris of Harford County, MD, is dealing with two show ponies which are sidelined with Lyme disease and which are boarded with her by owners whose available time or nursing skills are not up to dealing with the changing needs of this disease.

According to Morris, “This disease is complicated by the fact that a pony pretty much needs to be diagnosed by the totality of the symptoms it is showing. The tests can come back with both false positives and false negatives, so if you have ruled out any other possible problem it seems that you go with Lyme disease and begin treatment. In our area treatment is going to run about $400 a pony per month.”

Morris said you don’t just sit back and expect success to follow. “You need to be watching these ponies every day while you treat them because this disease doesn’t just sit still. Even on medication the disease can offer different symptoms while you’re treating it.”

She added, “One of the symptoms that we have found to be the most unsettling is a heightened flight response in these affected ponies that have always been quiet and obedient. The response occurs not just to handling but it can be a reaction to ordinary things that happen in a normal barn – wheelbarrows going up and down the aisle, another pony banging a feed bucket, someone leading a pony past the affected pony’s stall. These are everyday things that all of our ponies don’t even blink an eye at, but if you are in the stall with the pony with Lyme disease you need to keep this in the front of your mind at all times because you don’t want to be caught by surprise by its whirling or leaping forward when the flight behavior kicks in.”

Morris said, “We have found that there is really only one thing that is good about Lyme disease. It’s not contagious so it can’t be passed from pony to pony.”

The testing to rule out other diseases can be exhaustive and expensive. Besides a full physical examination, some of these symptoms can occur from recent immunizations or medications which also need to be ruled out. Then come radiological testing, CT scans, ultrasounds and possibly MRIs. This is in addition to a CBC, with chemical panel and glucose and insulin levels. Diagnosis of Lyme can be as problematic as dealing with it.

What follows diagnosis is an aggressive round of antibiotics, often doxycycline or minocycline, and pain medications, usually NSAIDS – all in addition to other treatments according to the symptoms presenting at the time.

Even though horses often show improvement within days of the beginning of treatment, Lyme disease is as hard to get rid of in horses as it is in humans. It is important that medications be given as ordered and all the meds need to be given, even if the horse seems to be better. The horse will need to be re-tested several times over the course of the next year. If your horse has chronic Lyme disease you will have to treat the symptoms as they appear.

The old horseman’s cure-all of a good grooming every day to catch early signs of other problems may be your best defense against Lyme disease. Pay particular attention to the base of the tail, the mane up to and including the area around the ears and throatlatch and all of the underbelly. Using fly sprays that include permethrins will also help to discourage ticks, as will keeping down high brush or grasses in the turn-out area.

In fighting Lyme it seems the proverbial ounce of caution beforehand may well equal many pounds of care, cash and heartache afterwards.