The nation’s $39 billion-a-year equine industry has been racked with a deadly virus that has killed at least seven horses — one in Bakersfield — and sickened another 37 in eight states, including 14 in California.
State and federal officials continued Friday to try to pinpoint the source of a mutated form of equine herpes virus-1, known as equine herpes myeloencephalopathy. The neurological illness leads to interference with the blood supply, causing tissue damage and a subsequent loss in normal brain and spinal cord function. Other symptoms include high fever, lethargy, weakness and lack of coordination.
In the meantime, equestrian associations and stables across the country have canceled shows, exhibitions and competitions to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. There are 698,000 horses in California, a business valued at $4.1 billion, according to the American Horse Council.
There is no specific cure for EHM.
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As many as 200 horses that may have been exposed to the contagious virus are also being watched for early stages of the bug, including nasal discharge, hind-end weakness and urine dribbling. EHV-1 is not transmissible to humans, but people can spread it to horses after touching an infected animal and its equipment and feed, said Dr. Kent Fowler, an equine veterinarian and the animal health branch chief for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
So far, authorities have traced the virus to the National Cutting Horse Association’s Western National Championships competition in Ogden, Utah. The annual event, where riders and horses are judged on their ability to separate a calf from the herd and awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money, was held April 30 to May 8. The virus has a two- to 10-day incubation period, Fowler said.
Owners should keep tabs on their horses’ temperature. For any horse with a temperature of 102 F or higher, a veterinarian should be notified.
The last big outbreak was in 2006, when six horses died in Florida.
While no cases were announced in San Luis Obispo County as of Friday, at least one local horse ranch has ceased operations as a precaution. On Tuesday, officials with the Loftus Ranch Arena in Paso Robles announced that all activities at its Buena Vista Drive property were suspended until further notice in response to the nationwide scare.
“We are taking the better-safe-than-sorry approach to this situation,” officials posted on the arena’s website, www.loftusranch.com.
The Paso Robles Center has not returned repeated requests for comment on the issue. Two upcoming events involving horses in May and June remain on the center’s calendar.
Members of the National Reined Cow Horse Association, slated to come to Paso Robles in June, said on their website that the reports of infected horses are being monitored and the association hasn’t canceled or postponed upcoming shows.
But organizers there have honored others’ decisions to do so at various venues.
The NRCHA Derby is still on the books for June 14 to 19 at the Paso Robles Event Center, according to its calendar at www.midstatefair.com.
Tribune staff reporter Tonya Strickland contributed to this story.