August 27, 2010
Looking for the one-shot answer to combat your mare’s estrus cycle? Dr. Patrick McCue walks you through the estrus cycle and how to battle it.
By Dr. Patrick M. McCue in The American Quarter Horse Journal
Mares come into heat or estrus due to rising estrogen levels produced by developing ovarian follicles. Mares typically do not show heat during the winter when they have small, inactive ovaries. Heat is also not exhibited after ovulation when mares have a corpus luteum producing progesterone. Ultimately, expression of behavioral estrus occurs in the presence of estrogen and the absence of progesterone. Absence of estrus is a function of low estrogen levels and/or elevated progesterone levels.
The development of follicles and ovulation are initiated by hormonal signals from the brain. Gonadotropin-releasing hormone is produced by the hypothalamus and secreted in pulse into the bloodstream. The anterior pituitary gland near the base of the brain receives the hormone signals. The pituitary secretes a follicle-stimulating hormone that stimulates follicular growth and a luteinizing hormone that causes follicle maturation and induces ovulation.
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Attacking the Hormone
Vaccines have been developed that target the initial player – the gonadotropin-releasing hormone – in this cascade of events. A vaccine is typically used to stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies against one or more specific infectious disease agents. However, vaccines can also be developed against other substances, including hormones. Vaccination against the gonadotropin-releasing hormone results in production of antibodies that bind to the hormone circulating in the blood stream and block the biological activity of the molecule.
As a result, the lack of bioactive gonadotropin-releasing hormone results in a reduction of follicle-stimulating hormone and luteinizing hormone production by the anterior pituitary and, ultimately, a reduction of ovarian follicular development. The absence of follicular growth is associated with estrogen levels that are insufficient to cause behavioral estrus.
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One commercial vaccine, licensed in Australia, is designated “for use in the control of estrus and estrus-related behavior in fillies and mares not intended for breeding.” The vaccine is administered as a two-dose series. Research shows that vaccinated mares develop an antibody response that peaked approximately two weeks after the second vaccination. Immunization resulted in a reduction of ovarian activity. Vaccination also was associated with a reduction in estradiol levels and a decrease of behavioral heat.
Most mares had an increase in ovarian activity and a return to estrus as the concentrations of antibodies in circulation decreased over time. Live foal rates were similar between mares receiving a placebo treatment and vaccinated mares in subsequent years after the effects of the vaccine had disappeared.
However, some young mares vaccinated against the hormone when they were in training failed to develop follicles or ovulate when their performance career was over. The incidence rate of this issue has not been determined.
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The Australian vaccine is clearly labeled for fillies and mares not intended for breeding. Holding to that principle would negate any adverse effects on ovarian function. However, the use of a horse can change over time as horses are bought and sold. In addition, one cannot predict the end of an athletic career and the start of a breeding career.
In summary, vaccines against the gonadotropin-releasing hormone offer great potential for a medically safe and straightforward means of blocking estrus or inducing contraception in mares. However, there might be serious issues regarding future reproductive performance in a limited percentage of vaccinated fillies or mares. Currently there are no vaccines against gonadotropin-releasing hormone approved for horses in the United States.
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