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Use these 10 tips to protect your farm from disease.

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The term biosecurity refers to management practices designed to reduce the chance of infectious disease transmission on your farm. This includes preventative measures to ensure disease is not carried into, or developed within, your facility as well as quarantine protocols to halt the spread of infection, should an outbreak occur. Consider the following suggestions when developing your own biosecurity plan.

1. Insist on a clean bill of health

Know what’s normal for all the horses on your property and monitor their health daily. This includes being aware of their personality traits and habits as well as their diets and activity levels, so that if they suddenly become ‘off’ you can take action.

Maintain accurate and detailed health records for all horses, and work with your veterinarian to develop a vaccination schedule and parasite management plan specific to the needs of your facility. For new arrivals, request an up to date health certificate and travel and medical history, including vaccination and deworming schedules. Inquire about the health status of the stable of origin and whether the horse has been tested for the region’s possible infectious diseases. You may even wish to have a vet perform a health exam on arrival, including a fecal egg count. Be particularly vigilant with horses purchased at auction. Not only can their medical history be spotty, but by virtue of having been in contact with other sale animals, they are more likely to carry disease back to your farm. Private sales, in which the horse travels from point A to point B, are safer.

2. Clean and disinfect

Stalled horses should have manure and soiled bedding removed twice daily to reduce insect vectors as well as the load of pathogens that may be present in the manure. Stalls should be disinfected annually or as required – in preparation for a new arrival, following an illness or before foaling, for example.

To disinfect a stall, remove all manure and bedding. Hose and scrub down floors and walls with hot water and detergent. Rinse and let dry. Don’t use a high-pressure washer unless the stall is going to be vacant for several days, since viruses and bacteria may be aerosolized. Use spray disinfectants that kill both bacteria and viruses (but are non-toxic to animals, humans and the environment) on all stall surfaces, including cross-ties or other hardware. Have your vet recommend the preferred types of products for these applications.

Be aware that some surfaces, such as untreated wood, dirt, unsealed concrete, or any other porous material, cannot be effectively disinfected. Bacteria and other pathogenic agents can ‘hide’ in these surfaces for long periods of time. Nonporous surfaces are ideal, as they can be washed and disinfected between horses using the stall, or if a disease outbreak occurs.

3. Eliminate pests

Keep the internal and external parasite populations to a minimum, and do your best to avoid rodent infestation.

The best defence against internal parasites, aside from a sound deworming program, is good manure management. It is ideal to have manure trucked off the property in order to eliminate risk of pathogen transmission, but if removal is not an option, it should be composted away from any horse areas. If parasite infection has occurred at your facility, it is particularly important to remove contaminated manure from stalls and grazing areas, and not to spread it on horse pastures.

Removal of manure also helps reduce breeding sites for external parasites, like flies. You can further control the insect population by removing standing water (effective against mosquitoes), controlling weeds and trimming long grasses. Use of insect repellents and traps indoors is also helpful.

Rodents and other animals that are attracted to horse feed can carry pathogens that may contaminate feed, and result in transmission of disease agents to horses that consume the feed. Use secure storage and garbage bins, and be sure sweep up and dispose of any spilled feed promptly.

4. Practice good hygiene

Anyone who handles horses on your property should practice good hygiene to prevent transmission of pathogens. Provide sanitation stations in the form of functional sinks with warm water and liquid, antibacterial soap and disposable hand towels. (Sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice when using soap and water to ensure that you have washed for long enough.) Alternatively, install alcohol-based sanitizer dispensers (with a minimum of 61 per cent alcohol), and insist that people use them before and after handling horses. It is especially important for people to wash their hands between groups of horses, or after contact with a sick horse.

In terms of your attire, it is a good idea to have designated footwear for the barn, which you clean and disinfect regularly. Further designate another set of footwear and clothing/coveralls or show gear for visiting other farms or showgrounds. Wash and disinfect these items after each outing and store separately from your regular barn attire.

5. Group like with like

Ideally, horses should be stabled near and turned out in specific groups of five to 10 horses or less. Then, if one horse should contract an inapparent disease, once clinical signs appear, it will be easier to determine which horses the affected individual had contact with, thus limiting the spread of the disease.

There is, of course, a larger risk for infectious disease introduction when horses travel between farms or events, so it is best for travelling horses to be kept separate from the other resident horses.

Equipment should not be shared between groups – i.e. use a different set of pitchforks and shovels and wheelbarrow for resident horses vs travelling horses. Ideally, horses will have their own set of grooming tools, blankets and track, but if they are shared, again, don’t mix them between groups.

Water buckets can also be a means of indirect transmission of pathogens between horses. Each horse should have their own designated bucket. When water buckets are filled, the hose should not touch the bucket, as this could be a way of spreading disease. Horses that are turned out in specific groups should have their own water source that is not accessible by other groups.

6. Make rules for visitors

The more people that visit a facility, the greater the risk of disease introduction, especially if visitors are not taking precautions to reduce the risk. Post a sign to indicate that people must check in when they arrive at your facility and keep a visitor log, so that if a disease outbreak occurs you can use it to potentially trace the source. Be sure that sanitation stations are visible, along with posted hygiene and horse handling protocols.

7. Take precautions when travelling

As noted, horses who travel off property are at greater risk for contracting and transmitting infectious disease. When you leave home, avoid direct contact with other horses (nose-to-nose is the worst) and indirect contact through the use of shared equipment. Wash your hands frequently and try not to let strangers touch your horse.

When it’s time to go home, brush dirt/manure off your tack and equipment first, then disinfect with wipes or sprays. Have your vet recommend the preferred types of products for these applications.

If possible, travel in your own trailer, and try not to ship with horses from other farms. If this is not possible, use a reputable shipper and avoid direct contact between horses.

When using your own trailer, make sure it is thoroughly cleaned and disinfected if outside horses have had access to it. Clean out any bedding, wash surfaces with soap and water and then use a disinfectant on the walls and floor. It is also important to clean and disinfect equipment such as buckets, tie straps and feeders in the trailer to make sure all possible pathogenic agents are removed or inactivated (killed). Be certain to consult with your vet about what products are appropriate to use, and follow the label directions.

8. Keep new arrivals separate

New arrivals should be kept separate from resident horses for two to three weeks in order to decrease the risk they pose. Because they may not be showing clinical signs of disease it is important that their health be assessed not only on arrival, but also over several weeks’ time while still in insolation. It is optimal that horses be tested for disease beforehand, but they may need to be tested on arrival if they are showing signs of disease, or if prior testing was not done.

Fever is often the first sign of infection. Signs such as diarrhea, cough or nasal discharge may follow, so it is also prudent to look for these signs, but monitoring the horse’s temperature daily can help detect illness promptly. The normal temperature of horses can vary, but, generally, any temperature over 101.5F in adult horses and over 102F in foals is considered above normal.

9. Quarantine sick horses

If a horse on your property does show signs of illness or is confirmed to have a contagious disease, it must be quarantined immediately. If not, the risk for spread of disease increases exponentially, and could lead to an outbreak that could impact the other horses at your facility and even spread to other farms.

The farther away a horse can be kept from other horses the better. Having a separate barn or paddock with shelter that is not used for other horses is ideal. If this is not possible, stable the horse at the end of an aisle, leaving an empty stall in between horses.

It is important, along with the separation, that protocols for people movement be used as well, as solely physical isolation of the horse doesn’t negate the risk of infectious disease spread. To reduce the risk of transmission, only contact the isolated horse after you tend to all the healthy horses. Or, better yet, have a person dedicated solely to the care of the sick horse. Designate set of food and water containers, along with stall mucking equipment, that are only used with the sick horse. Label these items with red tape as an added precaution. After working with the sick horse, make sure you properly clean or disinfect your hands, footwear and clothes.

10. Educate and inform staff and boarders

Staff and/or boarders should be educated on the handling, hygiene and quarantine procedures at your facility. Written protocols should be developed and posted so that everyone is aware of what is to be done, and so that they can refer to the protocols if there is ever any question about how to proceed. These protocols should be developed in consultation with your vet. For large facilities that are likely to have a large number of employees, it is important to not only have an infection plan, but to write it down so that everyone can comply with the protocols. In addition, these protocols allow you to know what is being done for disease prevention, so modifications can be made based on possible disease occurrence, and the effectiveness of your protocols can be measured.

Finally, someone knowledgeable of the signs of contagious disease should examine all new horses on arrival. If signs of disease are present, the horse should not be unloaded unless there is a plan to prevent disease transmission, and procedures to follow if a horse on the facility is sick or confirmed to have a contagious disease. When a horse is in isolation, there should be communication about the plan in place to prevent any possible cross-contamination from the sick horse to other horses.

Thank you note to Equine Guelph for sharing biosecurity recommendations from their ‘Beat the Bugs’ Equine Biosecurity Program. To┬ádetermine the level of risk at your facility, and receive advice based on your responses, check out Equine Guelph’s Equine Biosecurity Risk Calculator.