Posts Tagged Horse

MERS

MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) is the latest disease in nature’s little bag of tricks, which could turn into the next pandemic and solve our population issues for us. It is closely related to SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), both belonging to the same virus family. But, while SARS appeared in Asia, MERS first popped up in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Since then all cases have been seen either in the Middle East or in people who have travelled to the Middle East. As of June 2014 we have had 697 cases of which 210 people have died. As usual symptoms have been flu-like.

This is quite a high case fatality rate but, like bird flu, the virus has not raced around the world killing a third of the world’s population because it is not easily transferred from person to person, yet.

Any time one of these new diseases pops up it requires quite a bit of detective work to try and determine where it came from and how it works. It will probably come as no surprise that bats are once again implicated, the virus having been found in Egyptian tomb bats, a name guaranteed to generate sympathy with a nervous public.

Intriguingly the virus has also been found in camels, a situation which has some similarities with Hendra virus in Australia. Hendra virus lives happily in bats, infects horses (and kills them) and then spreads from horses to humans. However, as yet, there are no recorded cases of MERS causing disease in camels (although a number of camels have died in the UAE recently of undetermined cause, so this situation may change) and we have only recently seen the first confirmed case of a human catching the disease from a camel. Most of the other cases have been in people who have had very close contact with other sufferers. Where they caught it originally is still open to speculation.

It makes me think that the practice of veterinary medicine may be more dangerous than first thought. While we are all aware of the wonderful things we can catch from our primate neighbours no one really believed there was anything worth catching from our more distant cousins, like horses. Twenty years ago you would not have thought twice about examining a snuffly horse. Two years ago you would not have thought twice about examining a camel.

Australia has the largest feral camel population in the world, but no human cases of MERS. Preliminary testing of 25 camels has failed to find any evidence of MERS, implying that the Middle East camels may have been infected from the tomb bats or that the virus appeared in Middle East camels after the Australian population was established.

The upshot of all this is that we have absolutely no idea where the next fun plague might be coming from. As I get older and more paranoid I am becoming increasingly more nervous about travelling on crowded trains, planes and buses, full of sneezing and coughing people. And I am starting to think that sport is much more enjoyable when viewed from the comfort of my living room than from one of those packed sporting stadiums. I can see the day coming when I refuse to venture outside without my biohazard suit on.

Paranoia aside, most viruses are transferred between us via the things we touch, such as door handles, coffee cups, pens, etc. The best way to prevent this is by washing your hands frequently, with soap and water. To do it properly, sing the Happy Birthday song through twice while you are soaping up your hands. Oh, and don’t kiss bats, camels or any other non-human life forms. And maybe not even the human life forms.

Dr. F. Bunny

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You Will Obey

My daughter’s horse sailed gracefully over the jump, and then made a sharp left turn. Unfortunately my daughter continued going straight ahead, making a less than graceful face plant into the dirt. She dusted herself off, spat the sand out of her mouth, wiped the blood from her lip, climbed back on and completed the course.

When I commented to my daughter that she was certainly not lacking in courage, she just shrugged her shoulders and said that she had to finish the course. Otherwise her horse would learn that if he bucked her off the workout would be over, and he could go back to his paddock to eat grass and ready himself to panic next time a paper bag appeared in a tree.

I asked if that meant he did not enjoy being ridden. She just gave me one of those looks and walked off, confirming what I had long suspected. Horses do not particularly enjoy being saddled, ridden, coerced over jumps and made to ride in weird configurations around a show ring (this is called dressage). So why do they allow it? Why does a 500 kg horse allow itself to be dictated to by a girl barely a tenth of its weight? Surely a horse must have more grey cells than a cow, who wouldn’t dream of allowing someone on its back? And what about elephants? While they do trample the odd mahout, by and large they let themselves be pushed around by tiny men with pointed sticks and do nothing about it. Imagine trying that with a rhino or a hippo.

It does baffle me how often this occurs, a smaller, physically weaker creature dominating a much more powerful one. And now, if you’ll excuse me, the cats want feeding and then I have to provide a lap for their mid-afternoon snooze.

Dr. F. Bunny

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Thundering Down The Straight

And so we bid a fond farewell to another Spring Racing Carnival. Good riddance, I say. Flat races are at least somewhat less lethal than steeplechases which see an average of six horse deaths for every 1000 that take part (six deaths per 439 horses between 2000 and 2010 for the Grand National (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_National)). Still 1.5 dead horses out of every 1000 that start a flat race in the US (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horse_racing) is nothing to be sneezed at.

Personally I can’t derive any excitement from watching a bunch of horses running around in a circle. The excitement must come from the betting, I suppose. I also fail to understand how normally sane people come out of the closet at Melbourne Cup time every year (the race that allegedly stops the nation) just to throw money away betting on something they know absolutely nothing about.

However, it is the horse welfare aspect that concerns me the most. Race horses are like elite human athletes and, although human athletes don’t die with the same frequency (0.75 per 100,000 for male athletes and 0.13 for female athletes: http://www.diet-blog.com/07/why_do_healthy_athletes_die_of_heart_attacks.php), they both suffer elite athlete injuries: shin splints, fractures, bone chips, strained tendons and ligaments, arthritis, etc. The trouble is that racehorses are all inbred and have been selected artificially to run faster than is physiologically sustainable (See “Do I Hear Banjos?” for more information on inbreeding). As with most things we have tampered with we are not happy unless we’ve taken things beyond the extreme.

Today’s racehorses are extremely large, 450-500 kg, by equine standards. If you look at wild equids, such as Przewalski horses and zebras, they weigh around 350 kg. Horses run on their toes. That hoof you see at the end of their leg is actually their third toe. All that weight as they come thundering down the straight is borne on four toes. And, because horses are generally raced before they are mature, that equine skeleton has not finished developing, which further predisposes them to injury. Horses, like most athletes, are pushed to the very limit of what they can physically do, so it should come as no surprise that virtually every horse suffers from exercise induced pulmonary haemorrhage following a race, basically bleeding into the lungs.

When you take that artificially selected enormous amount of weight, support it on four tiny limbs and push it further than nature intended it is no wonder that as many horses break down as they do. What does come as a surprise is that they don’t all crumble into a heap of broken muscles and tendons. But, with so much money at stake and people taking such a perverse delight in seeing animals running around in a circle with people on their backs, it seems unlikely to change any time soon.

Dr. F. Bunny

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