Piroplasmosis is not a disease that many people from the UK have ever heard of or worry about. Two members of ERF, who live in France, have unfortunately had their horses fall victim to this dreadful disease and with their kind help and permission we have published this article to help you all be aware and vigilant of this potentially life threatening illness. Spotting the symptoms quickly and getting urgent veterinary assistance is of the essence and could save your horse’s life.
Piroplasmosis is a tick borne disease caused by the ‘babesia’ protozoan parasite. There are several different strains of babesia, including those that affect horses, dogs, cows and humans.
Once an infected tick has bitten the horse, it takes 7 to 22 days for the babesia to incubate. The disease is most prevalent during August to October each year.
- Rapid shallow breathing
- Immobility and reluctance to move
- Bodily swelling
- Bloody urine
- Cessation of bowel/bladder function
Due to the similarity of the clinical signs it can be confused with laminitis, colic or azoturia. However, the horse rapidly becomes worse and sadly horses do die without urgent veterinary treatment as it affects the vital organs of heart, liver and kidneys.
The initial treatment is with anti-protozoan drugs and this will be combined with supportive drugs for any affected organs. Sometimes a blood transfusion is necessary.
Be aware that if the horse is still incubating the disease during treatment the horse can appear to recover only to have the symptoms again after 7 – 10 days.
It’s essential to restore the bowel and bladder function as soon as possible, so the horse will need to be tempted with tepid water (maybe sweetened) and very easy to eat foods.
If the liver is affected (signalled by jaundice) its essential to keep all feeds very low in protein. Alfa and horse feeds are typically high in protein so should be avoided initially. Bran is very effective in this situation when made very wet, the horse can almost drink it and it helps to restore bowel function whilst not straining the organs. Do not add salt.
Sometimes the swelling in the horse becomes so great that they find it impossible to move their necks so food and water will have to be offered by hand. It is also important to keep the horse warm and dry, with rugs and shelter if necessary.
Click the continue reading button to read two horse owners accounts of Piroplasmosis
We went to say hello and noticed patchy sweat and he totally refused to move. We immediately rung the vet who advised us try move him to a stable out of the heat and await his immediate attention. His body was swollen with fluids, his neck was hard and he couldn’t move it in any direction. Jasper was staggering and his eyes and gums were yellow. He had a temperature of 102. The vet immediately inserted a drip and proceeded to pump pouches of anti protozoan drugs and a rectal examination revealed that is was unfunctional.
The vet took several blood tests and the results showed that it was a babesia’ protozoan parasite and that his kidneys, liver, heart and bowel had all been affected. No one was sure if he was going to survive.
We had to keep him rugged and administer drugs every couple of hours along side gently trickling tepid sweet water into his mouth to encourage intake of fluids. He was off his food (definitely poorly as this lad would eat anything), so it was anything and everything to tempt him to eat. After 24 hours of extreme stress and constant attention a small glimmer returned to his face and although he couldn’t lower his head, he would eat if we fed him by hand.
Feeding was difficult. He couldn’t really chew due to his swollen body and depression. Jaspers failing liver and kidneys meant a very low protein feed was needed to avoid any undue strain. Bran fitted the bill perfectly in this case as it holds large volumes of water and its wet fibre is good at encouraging bowel movements.
By day 2 he had his first poo (I’ve never been so excited at the sight of horse droppings before). Slowly over 4 days he began to perk up. By day 5 he was trying to get his head down to graze, he developed a very foal like technique to reach the grass by splaying his forelegs wide to get low enough. Although he remained very sluggish and fragile he seemed to pick up. His immune system had taken a bashing and so he was rugged during the day and stabled at night. This had reduced our somewhat burly welsh cob to a quivering wreck.
Just when we thought he was in the clear we noticed him lying down in the field and unusually he allowed us to go up and cuddle him. Something was definitely wrong.
The vet came out again and once again urgent treatment resumed. This time it really did look like the end.
Luckily though this story does have a happy ending. A few days later and though still sore, swollen and frail the urge to grab the headcollar and not give it back returned and after about 6 weeks he had pretty much returned to normal.
After a year he still has little problems. His kidneys have not fully repaired and he has swellings under his belly if he has too much protein. He is not so tolerant to exercise and gets tired quicker than he used to. It is possible that he is now a carrier for the disease and it is possible that he may get it again. We have feared this autumns arrival and by the middle of November I shall be happy to say that the time has passed by (This may not apply to the warmer southern climates as we are 450 meters above sea level and have cold winters).
Misha’s reaction to the first injection was yet another attack of colic, from which he recovered fairly quickly. After the second injection he had a prolonged bout of acute diarrhea, which lasted just over 3 hours. It was during this period that I genuinely feared that he would die. Debilitating though it clearly was, his evident soreness and tucked up appearance diminished over the following 36 hours and by Wednesday he looked to be almost completely ‘normal’ again.
One week later and a visiting friend from the UK who knows Misha well, found it difficult to believe he had been so seriously ill. Clearly the onset of the disease can be very quick as can the recovery if treatment is administered without delay.
Our vet was reassuringly quick to diagnose the disease by examination and blood analysis. He was equally quick to administer the treatment. However, advice on recovery prognosis and after care was not forthcoming. I sought help from friends and professionals. Misha would need help to support his liver, cleanse his blood and boost his immune system.
I immediately included in his diet; crushed milk thistle seed, brewer’s yeast, wilted nettle, fresh whole dandelion, honey, live yoghurt and artichoke infusion. I obtained liver and kidney supplements from Silver Lining Herbs and after speaking at length to Hilary at Hilton Herbs have also ordered Restore and Hepaphyt.
I hope Misha’s experience might make you all more aware of the dangers of ticks and the possibility of this horrendous disease afflicting one of your horses.