March 25, 2010
When curiosity could kill the horse.
Zen, my 4-year-old mare that I’m bringing along, has the most amazing sense of curiosity. She’s inquisitive and eager to learn — qualities you love to find in a horse. Except for yesterday, when it could have proved disastrous.
It unfolded around lunch time, when I went to check on the barking dogs (who are penned), expecting to find a barn-cat tussle. Instead, I found a raccoon, nestled up by the water tank in the horse pasture. He didn’t run away, but just hunkered down to watch me. Human voices didn’t send him skittering away, either. When he finally did walk off, he was slow and unsure in his movements. Of course, anything could have been wrong with him, but my mind was flashing one word: RABIES.
I called Chad, asking him to come bearing arms. As I’ve talked about here before, we hate killing anything, but a potentially rabid animal? That’s an automatic trip to raccoon heaven. I shut the two mares, Zen and Sooner, out of that section of pasture and began going over them, making sure they hadn’t tussled with the varmit. When I found the raccoon, the horses were nowhere near it — but I didn’t know how long it had been there, either.
Sooner got the first inspection. She’s such a beautiful mare, I could stare at her for hours. So I admired her feminine-but-muscular form as I walked around her, grumbled briefly about all the sorrel hair that’s shedding off in insane quantities, and then pronounced her OK. No scratches or any other signs that she might have had any contact with the ‘coon.
Meanwhile, Zen was hanging over my shoulder, wondering what was going on and why the attention wasn’t going to her. She seemed satisfied when I began running my hands over her rose-gray body, from neck to hooves to tail. All clear so far. And then she turned to look at me, and I saw It. A small dot of blood on her nose — on just exactly the spot you’d expect her to nudge a strange object with. A strange, not-wanting-to-move, furry object. That word, RABIES, that had been flashing in my mind earlier was now accompanied by lights, sirens and adrenaline.
The vet’s office was closed for lunch, so I busied myself cleaning the small wound with some diluted iodine. It really was small, and judging from the amount of blood, not very deep. Could it have been a tooth or claw? Maybe. Maybe not. I called our local game warden, a friend of ours, to get his thoughts. He said he didn’t necessarily need to get involved, and since no humans had been exposed, testing of the raccoon would not be required. We were just to dispose of the carcass so that no other animals could eat it (being careful to avoid contact with it ourselves) and get on the phone with our vet to talk about the horse.
Thankfully, the vet didn’t take his full lunch hour that day, and he answered the phone when I called. Even more thankfully, we had just given all of our horses their spring shots — including a rabies vaccine. The vet verified that Zen had previously been vaccinated for rabies (yes, every year!), and he assured me that she should be fine. “You’ve done all you can do,” he said.
Of course, as is my custom, once everything was squared away at the barn, I came inside and started Googling. Much of the information about equine rabies, I already knew, thanks to stories we’ve run in America’s Horse. But this little nugget from the American Association of Equine Practitioners jumped out at me: If an unvaccinated horse is exposed to a confirmed rabid animal … the recommendation is euthanasia. (Enter more lights and sirens here.)
We didn’t have a known exposure, nor did we have confirmation that the raccoon was rabid, but wow … it hit home to think that a chance encounter in Zen’s pasture could potentially end in euthanasia of this strong, brilliant, healthy horse. I’ve always been a believer in vaccinations, rabies in particular because I know the disease is invariably fatal. But I’ve never been more grateful to have a good immunization program in place.
Happy riding … and vaccinating!
Editor, America's Horse magazine