Flood Waters Bring Increased Threat Of Anthrax Disease In Horses

Anthrax is back in the sad horse news.

Traveling four states to horse activities in recent days, the Missouri River continued flooding rich farm ground to destroy millions of dollars in crops along with inestimable real estate damage. Twice over the Mississippi River revealed similar destruction, but it has such a large natural water flow, extent was not as apparent to lay vision.

Flood waters are the initial concern, but now warnings have been issued about threats of anthrax (pronounced “anthraks”) disease being spread to livestock through contaminated flood waters.

“Symptoms of the acute form of anthrax in horses, cattle, sheep and goats include fever, anxiety, depression, difficult breathing, weak heartbeat, seizures, and patients can die soon,” according to Dr. Robert N. Oglesby, widely-quoted equine veterinarian..

Last week, the Kansas Livestock Association, headquartered in Topeka,  cautioned members about the possible presence of anthrax in pastures where floodwaters have receded, especially along the Missouri River.

Dr. Larry Hollis, Kansas State University Extension veterinarian, explained, “Anthrax spores occur naturally in the soil and are capable of surviving for decades.”

He said the Dakotas commonly have anthrax in the summer, and the bacteria could have been carried south this year by the flooding Missouri River.

“Livestock is susceptible to the deadly bacteria by grazing in contaminated places,”  warned Hollis, who urged livestock owners to immediately report any unexplained deaths among animals.

Dr. Susan Keller, North Dakota’s state veterinarian, encouraged ranchers along the Missouri River to talk with veterinarians about anthrax vaccinations for livestock.

“Animals that aren’t vaccinated often die quickly after being exposed to anthrax bacteria, but livestock that is vaccinated rarely dies,” Keller emphasized.

“Anthrax is one of the oldest and most destructive diseases of livestock and has caused the loss of many human lives as well,” Oglesby detailed.

Humans can become infected with anthrax by inhaling contaminated soil particles or by handling wool or hair from diseased animals. Infection of the intestinal tract can occur by eating undercooked meat from diseased animals.

“Antibiotics only prove helpful at the earliest stages of the disease, because they fight bacteria, not the toxins the bacteria produce in abundance,” Oglesby said.

Penicillin, tetracycline, erythromycin and other antibiotics may be prescribed. To be effective, treatment should be initiated early.

In the worst-known anthrax outbreak, about 66 people died when spores were released from a bio weapons plant in Russia during1979.

Because anthrax is considered to be a potential agent for use in biological warfare, theDepartment of Defense has systematic vaccination of all U.S. military personnel.

Dreaded for centuries, anthrax was the first bacillus to be identified under a microscope by Robert Koch in 1876. The first vaccine ever developed was aimed at protecting animals against anthrax, and world-famous microbiologist Louis Pasteur, the developer, made it available to sheep farmers in 1888.

A multi-species vaccine that protects domestic animals has proven to be highly effective and safe.

“In the grand scheme of things, horses can fare better than humans when faced with anthrax,” clarified. Dr. Max Coats of the Texas Animal Health Commission.

“If you get into a situation where you have an infected animal that has bled out on the soil, and the soil becomes contaminated with spores, if you stir that up and breathe it, yes, you can become infected,” Coats warned.

“This is a very short clinical disease. Often, the first time you notice you have a problem is when something has died,” Coats said. “From initial exposure, anthrax takes only 96 hours to kill.

“This is a treatable disease in the skin form if done promptly and vigorously. Penicillin-type drugs are effective treatment, but must be administered immediately.”

Coats recommended annual vaccination of animals in areas with a history of anthrax, but he did not discourage horse owners from vaccinating their animals if they fear bio-terrorism.

Dr. Michael Piontkowski at the Colorado Serum Company said one dose of the anthrax vaccine administered at least two weeks before anticipated exposure affords protection, though the label recommends that in heavily infected areas, two doses be given two to three weeks apart. Annual boosters are necessary.

Vaccination is extremely safe, but may cause localized swelling at the injection site. To avoid the problem, he recommended that the subcutaneous injection be given half in each side of the neck.

Coats suggested that horse owners obtain the vaccine through a veterinarian because restrictions on the sale of anthrax vaccine vary from state to state.

Horse owners were cautioned  when administering anthrax vaccine. “This is a live-spore vaccine,” Coats said, “so you sure don’t want to stick yourself, although there are not many documented cases of anthrax being caused by vaccine.

“Horses are more resistant than cattle, and there is a very good vaccine available that gives  better protection than we get from the human vaccine,” Coats summarized.