Today we are welcoming an anonymous writer who wanted to share their experience with EIA in Alberta. The Yeg Equestrian also reached out to Westhills Equine Veterinary Services for further exploration of EIA. Read on below!

Submitted by: Anonymous

In 2021, a record breaking 106 horses were identified as being infected by Equine Infectious Anemia and subsequently euthanized. Three of those horses where mine and I’d like to share my story.

I’m a working equine professional with five years formal education and over 12 years experience in owning horses. I have dedicated my life and career to caring for and improving the lives of the equine, I consider myself a knowledgeable horsewoman and student of the horse. Despite this last year I experienced not only my worst nightmare but that of every horse owner. 

Equine Infectious Anemia (EIA) is a blood disease that has no vaccine, no treatment, and no cure. It is a government regulated disease in which all horses infected are ordered to be euthanized regardless of current health status. EIA is mainly spread by biting flies; this means it can travel across fields and roads and infect horses regardless of if they have come into direct contact with an infected horse. Horses may also be asymptomatic for years before becoming ill, EIA is not in itself always fatal but infected horses are carriers for life putting other horses at risk. 

We discovered the disease when one of my horses became lethargic, followed by reduced appetite, fever and neurological signs. He was brought to the veterinary office immediately; his symptoms did not point to a single diagnosis, so we pulled full blood panels and treated his fever. I remember the list of possible causes: bacterial infection, West Nile, EPM, EHV1, and EIA. It was a scary list and I remember my veterinarian saying “we’ll pull a coggins test just to get it out of the way”. It wasn’t high on our list, my horse hadn’t moved facilities in over two years and before that he had a negative coggins test. I remember saying that if it was one of the other possibilities he would be in for a fight but EIA was the first one to get out of the way as it was the only 100% fatal option. I also recall the day I got the call that he tested “inconclusive”, a nice way to say he tested positive but they send the testing off for confirmation. On November 17th I saw the caller ID flash CFIA (the agency in charge of handling EIA) on my phone and before I even answered I knew what the answer was. 

It was as if I was frozen and yet the world around me was moving at warp speed. This horse was currently galloping around bored in his quarantine pen, young, full of life and sweet as pie. Further testing came back with two of my other horses testing positive, my heart horse, my competition horse, the horses I have had the longest. This left me with only one remaining horse, final testing revealing that he made it through.  

I felt like I had failed as an owner and as a so-called professional horse person. I thought that this only happened to horses poorly kept and often neglected, with little to no care. Not people who loved and cherish and did everything they knew how to do to keep their horses healthy. As I sought out information on how this could have happened, I found only sterile and cold veterinary and government websites stating bare fact. I couldn’t find what this made me as an owner, how to cope as business, how and what to tell everyone. There was no Facebook group on this experience, there was no one waiting to tell me how to go through this, how to lose my treasured friends, how to euthanize healthy horses, how to say goodbye and what came after. I coped by holding so closely to my family, to the select few I felt safe telling the truth. I spent every hour I could with them before they left, they played in the arena, ate as much hay and grain and cookies as they wanted, they were brushed and loved on and when the time came I told them I loved them and was there for every last second. 

Now I am here, living the in the “after” a few short months later, although there is not a day that has gone by that I have not remembered what happened, gone over the details, and cried at our loss. So perhaps after isn’t the correct word but I feel confident in a few things I have discovered from all of this:

  1. The only way to diagnose EIA is through a coggins test, which is growing in popularity but not mandatory in many facilities or shows. Most people do not understand what a coggins test is or what it truly means, other than that you sometimes need it to travel, like a passport. I lost three of my best friends from a disease that most people do not know about, that can infect any horse at any time regardless of the level of care they are under. EIA can strike at any facility despite anyone’s best efforts. We need to be more careful, and we need to be aware of this silent pandemic happening to horses in our province. 
  1. I am a knowledgeable person, this was not entirely my fault. The horse that we since theorize caused this particular event had a fantastic owner and TEAM of veterinarians and equine professionals. Not one but many people worked on and saw this horse and not even the most qualified people caught it or diagnosed it. Somehow in all the care no one ever thought to pull the one single test that would prevent it. There is no one person who is at fault.
  1. If love and good intentions could save their lives it would have but maybe it can save a few others. 
  1. Most importantly I want to let people who have experienced this, or who will in the future, know that they are not alone. You should not feel ashamed that this happened and your loss and experience matters. I truly believe that the best way to get a handle on this disease is to bring it to light and not to shame the people it has happened to. I wish that as a business we could be truthful without fear of what people would think. I wish I could honor my lost horses without being afraid of what people would think of me as an owner and professional in this industry. The horse world is the most amazing place and I love being a part of it, but it can be ruthless and judgmental at times. 

This is a lesson that no one should be forced to learn and in such a strange and uncertain time in our world this is one thing that doesn’t need to be added. Please do the testing, spread the word and do not be afraid to share your experience. I am with you, I hear you and I will never blame you. We lost 106 horses last year, their lives mattered and so does the grief and the loss of their owners. 

In the memory of my special partners and in hopes of maybe saving some other people from heartbreak.

Thank you for sharing your experience. The below excerpt is from Dr. Emily Graham of Westhills. Thank you for taking the time to do this write-up! Westhills is a gorgeous equestrian veterinary facility just outside Stony Plain, AB.

Submitted by: Dr. Emily Graham DVM, VSMT, cVMA

Equine infectious anemia (EIA) is a potentially fatal disease in horses, mules and donkeys that is federally reportable to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).  It is caused by a viral infection and is most commonly transmitted through blood on the mouthparts of biting flies such a horseflies. Less commonly it can be transmitted through vectors such as needles or surgical instruments or the semen of an infected stallion. If a pregnant mare is infected with EIA they usually abort the foal or the foal is infected and dies within several months of birth. 

EIA is identified through a blood test called a coggins test. A licensed veterinarian that is certified with the CFIA for coggins testing pulls blood and then must fill out paperwork including identification of the horse and location of the horse. This is then sent to a certified lab (Westhills EVS sends ours to Prairie Diagnostics in Saskatoon) and results are available usually within a few days. It is mandatory to have a coggins test to cross the border into the USA. Certain barns or shows may require coggins testing as well. 

Infected horses may show clinical signs including anorexia, depression, fever, general weakness, jaundice, bleeding from eyes, extremity swelling, weight loss, general poor doing and less commonly loss of coordination. Some horses may be infected for months before showing clinical signs or clinical signs can progress slowly over months or even years. Infected horses are carriers for life. Less commonly, infected horses may not show any clinical signs. There is currently no known treatment for EIA. 

Over the past several years the incidence of EIA in Alberta has increased. We have had several cases per year of EIA in Parkland County for the last few years. This is a devastating diagnosis and ultimately ends in euthanasia of the affected horse. However it is still important to test for EIA. Testing for EIA is the only way that we have to identify and limit the spread of this devastating disease. Infected animals carry the virus for life and this puts other animals at risk.

There is a two step process for the diagnosis of EIA. If the initial sample is not conclusively negative, it is marked as “inconclusive”. At that point CFIA contacts the responsible veterinarian and the veterinarian is responsible for informing the owner. The “inconclusive” horse should be quarantined ideally 200m from other horses and the facility where the horse is boarded should close to incoming or outgoing horses. The blood sample is then sent to a second lab for a different method of detection of EIA. Most commonly this sample comes back negative and the suspect horse can leave quarantine and is considered negative. However, if the sample comes back as positive the horse is considered EIA positive. CFIA and the responsible veterinarian work with the horse owner (as well as barn owner, other owners where the positive horse is located etc) and will place the location under strict quarantine. All other horses at the affected location or horses in contact with the positive horse are required to be coggins tested. Unfortunately any horse that tests positive for EIA is euthanized with supervision by the CFIA. The other horses on property or that had contact with the infected animal must test negative for EIA twice before quarantine is removed. The second negative test is 45 days (or more) after the last date of contact with the infected horse. Although this is a very difficult process, we as veterinarians are here to guide and support owners through the process. 

If you have any further questions please visit the CFIA website or of course call us at Westhills EVS!

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