Controlling EIA’s spread has its challenges

Close up of a Coggins test

A $2 fee from every EIA test goes towards an EIA control fund that provides compensation for animals that are destroyed. Photo: Christina Weese.

Those in the horse industry all share a stake in maintaining vigilance over the spread and control of equine communicable diseases, and this is perhaps most true with equine infectious anemia (EIA), a disease whose only control is through regular screening.

But the politics of disease management inevitably bring forth questions. Why do certain competitions require EIA screening but not others? Why doesn’t the government make EIA screening mandatory in more situations? And, on the other side of the argument, do horse owners really want to have to pay for more tests, especially for fit and healthy horses?

EIA was first made a reportable disease in Canada in the 1970s.

“The purpose of making a disease a reportable disease is to a) eliminate it or b) control it,” explains Dr. Betty Althouse, chief veterinary officer for Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Agriculture and a former veterinary program specialist with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).

A recent EIA outbreak in Saskatchewan and other parts of Western Canada has put the disease and the need for screening on horseowners’ radars this year.

“In general, reportable diseases are ones that have either zoonotic potential, devastating livestock mortality, or an effect on trade.”

However, EIA doesn’t fit well into any of those categories. In fact, Althouse points out that EIA was actually removed from the list of reportable diseases in the mid-1990s but was brought back through industry lobbying.

As a result, a hybrid program was developed in the late 1990s with shared responsibilities between the horse industry and the federal government.

“The industry accepted some trade-offs in return for government monitoring: responsibility for surveillance, paying a check-off fee with every test and a reduced level of compensation for animals that are destroyed,” explains Althouse.

Here’s a more detailed look at those trade-offs:

  • The equine industry has accepted responsibility for surveillance. This means the cost of the initial EIA screening is covered by individual horse owners. This also means that there are no federally mandated requirements for EIA screening, other than for import/export purposes. Equine Canada recommends a negative Coggins test be required by show committees but does not require it.
  • A check-off fee is paid with every EIA test. A $2 fee from every EIA test goes towards an EIA control fund that provides compensation for animals that are destroyed.
  • The industry accepted a reduced level of compensation. An owner who euthanizes an EIA-positive horse is compensated for the market value of the horse up to a maximum of $2,000. The horse industry has accepted this compensation cap as part of the EIA monitoring program.

When a positive horse is identified, the CFIA contacts the presiding veterinarian and works with him or her to inform the horse’s owner.

“The premises are placed under quarantine and in-contact horses are tested by the CFIA,” says Althouse. “These include in-herd contacts as well as fence-line contacts. In addition, the CFIA actively follows up on horses that have left the premises in the past 30 days. It’s the farm owner’s responsibility to follow up with owners whose horses left the premises prior to 30 days.”

If any positives are found, they are culled and the remaining animals are re-tested after 45 days. The cycle of testing and culling is repeated until all tests come back negative, at which point the quarantine is lifted.

Positive animals are either euthanized or permanently branded and kept in fly-proof premises, which isn’t a viable option for the vast majority of horse owners.

“Updates to this policy are coming soon,” says Althouse. Consultations with industry are ongoing and horse owners who wish to make their views known should contact their provincial equestrian organization. New regulations will be posted on the CFIA website as they come into effect.

Some of the new regulations will formalize the CFIA’s response to an outbreak. The re-testing period changes to 45 days. For the quarantine itself, the “declaration of infected area” is being changed to a quarantine of the actual horses on the premises, since unlike certain animal diseases such as BSE, the property itself is not a vector for transmission of the virus.

Horse owners can check for EIA updates on the CFIA website or sign up for email notifications.


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