It can seem that ticks are lurking beneath the frozen tundra-like surface just waiting to strike the moment the sun shines. It’s partially true — ticks don’t die in freezing temperatures. They merely remain dormant, while deer ticks remain active year-round. In many rural areas, ticks seem to have assumed the mantle of public enemy number one when it comes to outdoor pests. Horses are particularly vulnerable, spending extended time grazing in places where tick populations can flourish.
Ticks, which latch onto the skin, carry and transmit a number of serious diseases to humans and animals. Concerns for horses include piroplasmosis, equine granulocytic anaplasmosis (ehrlichiosis), equine infectious anemia, and Lyme disease. The growing number of Lyme diagnoses in humans in certain areas of the U.S., combined with the challenges of diagnosis in both humans and animals, have heightened concerns about this disease.
Protecting Your Horse from Lyme & Other Tick-Borne Diseases
While establishing a vaccination plan with your veterinarian is vital to your horse’s health, those seeking a vaccination against Lyme disease will find no silver bullet. Lyme vaccinations for horses are controversial; there is no FDA-approved vaccine available, and more research is required to before an approved, effective equine immunization is widely used. Until then, a multi-prong approach is the best defense when it comes to prevention when temperatures rise.
Manage the Environment
For many New Englanders, horses are turned out in proximity to wooded areas where ticks thrive. While prevention techniques can sometimes feel futile, they can be effective in moderating insect numbers and subsequently lowering risk of insect-borne disease. Brush removal around the grazing area can keep the tick population down, for example, as can cleaning up fruit that has fallen from fruit trees and keeping a mown pasture. Owners can also consider deer-resistant plants so as not to attract tick-carrying interlopers. Rodents, too, are dependable carriers, and curbing infestations in the barn as much as possible is an effective defense tactic.
In the absence of digestibles for equine tick prevention, repellents that use synthetic insecticides can dramatically cut incidences of latching ticks. While these products don’t eliminate risk, they can help repel ticks and make the job of hand-checking easier. Treated wipes, usually using permethrin or cypermethrin are product options for use on the horse’s coat. Coumaphos spray or powder can be used to spot dust on the underbelly and mane, and tail, and shampoos that repel insects are available for horses as well.
At Dog Not Gone, owner Julie Swain considers the absence of pill-form pesticides a positive thing for horses. The company’s No Fly Designs line features insect-repellent clothing for humans and pets, including horses, and for Swain it’s a better alternative to ingesting or exposing the skin to pesticides for all humans and animals. The permethrin-treated fabric keeps away ticks, black flies, and biting insects that besides posing risk of disease, are a persistent bother to horses.
“It’s important to use several methods of prevention to keep the horse safe, and our insect-resistant Safety Horse Vest doesn’t penetrate the skin and is safe to use in conjunction with all other methods of protection,” said Swain. No Fly Zone™ fabric has a permanent treatment of permethrin that does not come off, even when wet, and while the vest does not prevent horse flies, the blaze orange option does have the added benefit of doubling as a visibility vest during hunting season.
When ticks find an equine host, they may attach immediately or wander around the horse’s body seeking the perfect place to latch on. They often seek places the skin is thinner, such as the chest, underbelly, mane, armpits, groin, and tail. As with humans and dogs, vigilance in hand-examining the body and removing any ticks should be a routine process, particularly after a ride on the trail. Most experts estimate that removal of ticks within 24 hours can prevent infection of diseases, including Lyme disease. The removal process is the same as with humans: Use tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible and apply gentle traction without twisting to ensure that the tick’s mouth and head are removed along with the body.
Diagnosing Lyme Disease in Horses
Diagnosing Lyme disease in horses presents challenges. Horses can present symptoms in varying degrees, symptoms can mimic those of other conditions, and some horses may not exhibit symptoms at all. As a result, diagnosis is usually done by treatment. While clinical signs are broad, the most common include a mild fever, stiffness, and multiple limb lameness.
Equus provides additional information about Lyme disease protection and management for horses. As always, consult with your veterinarian if you detect signs of discomfort in your horses, or have concerns about insect-borne diseases.