What are Coronavirus?
Equine coronavirus has long been seen as a disease in foals, but in 2013, outbreaks began to be reported more frequently among adult horses, generally over 2 years of age. Outbreaks are most common in the coldest months, generally from December to May. Supportive care can resolve symptoms in a particular horse rather quickly, though an outbreak can last for up to 3 weeks, due to the fact that infected horses shed the virus through their feces. More serious complications can occur once the virus breaks down the barrier of the intestinal tract. This allows the bacteria in the GI tract to enter the bloodstream, and infect other organs and body systems, such as the lymph nodes or brain, and possibly creating a life threatening condition.
The coronavirus is a group of RNA viruses that cause intestinal and respiratory problems across many species. These viruses are classified into alpha, beta and gamma groups, based on serologic and genetic differences. The equine coronavirus (ECoV) is in the beta group, and can cause symptoms related to the intestinal system in horses. Fevers exceeding 102 degrees F and appetite loss are the most common symptoms. While it can be treated successfully, more serious complications in rare cases can become fatal.
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Symptoms of Coronavirus in Horses
Symptoms of the equine coronavirus in horses include:
- Fevers around 104 degrees F
- Appetite loss
- Diarrhea or soft formed feces
- Mild colic
- Flank watching
- Lying down
- Neurologic abnormalities
- Hyperammonemia, or excess ammonia in the blood
- Leukopenia, or reduction of white blood cells in blood
- Hypoalbuminaemia, abnormally low amounts of the protein albumin in blood
More serious complications that can occur once the intestinal tract barrier has been broken down by the virus can include:
- Septicemia, or an infection in the bloodstream
- Endotoxemia, when endotoxins from bacteria are released into the bloodstream
- Encephalopathy, or brain disease
- Decreased perfusion
- Gastrointestinal translocation, or when bacteria moves from the GI tract to the bloodstream or organs
Causes of Coronavirus in Horses
Though the source of the coronavirus in horses remains unknown, transmission of the virus is from horse to horse by a fecal oral route. The virus is shed in the manure of infected horses for a few weeks after symptoms appear. Some horses have been known to shed the virus without showing any symptoms. Although these asymptomatic shedders have been reported, researchers have not yet discovered if carriers exist.
Diagnosis of Coronavirus in Horses
Once symptoms appear, your veterinarian will examine your horse, taking into consideration all clinical signs, and any history of other infected horses in the same population. Coronavirus is a possibility with enteric conditions, and if suspected, your vet will need to run certain tests to confirm this diagnosis. These tests include examining a fecal sample through a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. This can detect the corona genomic RNA. A blood sample may also be tested for hematologic abnormalities associated with the coronavirus, such as leukopenia, ammonia levels, and albumin levels.
Treatment of Coronavirus in Horses
Most of the treatment of horses infected with the coronavirus is supportive, and usually leads to symptom resolution in one to four days. Treatments can include anti-inflammatories, fever reducing medications, anti-ulcer drugs, and gastrointestinal protectants. Intravenous fluids are given as needed, such as in cases of dehydration.
When an outbreak occurs, symptom levels are high, but fatalities tend to be very low. Many cases will resolve quickly with treatment, with rare cases of severe deterioration that can lead to euthanization. Preventing the spread of the virus to healthy horses through biosecurity measures can help to end an outbreak.
Recovery of Coronavirus in Horses
Recovery of this condition is good, and you should see your horse recover within days of treatment. You may need to administer medications to your horse, and monitor him for signs of recovery.
Though most cases of coronavirus will resolve within days, infected horses can continue to shed the virus in their feces, for up to 21 days past the beginning of symptoms. If an outbreak occurs, biosecurity measures are needed to prevent the spread of the disease to healthy horses in the population. Anyone who handles the horses should use disposable gloves for each horse, practice hand washing, use individual thermometers for each horse, isolate infected horses from the rest of the population, use disinfectant footbaths, use separate manure equipment for infected horses and healthy ones, limit traffic through infected animals’ spaces, and use disinfectants to render the virus inactive.
Coronavirus Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals
Good afternoon, My 5 year old was just diagnost with coronavirus. I have been ready and talking with my vets about care and such. My questions is how often will this virus reaper? Should he always have a separate paddock? How about horse showing, can he infect others when he isn't having an outbreak?
Many horses infected with coronavirus won’t show any symptoms. Symptoms of lethargy and diarrhoea may occur for a few days. After resolution of symptoms it is important to keep biosecurity measures in place for a minimum of three weeks post recovery as the virus may continue to be shed in the faeces. Transmission is by faecal oral route; recurrence is rare, if there is another presentation of symptoms follow the biosecurity measures. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM
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