ESCANABA — Multiple horses throughout the U.P. have been diagnosed with a deadly infection that has been linked to mosquitoes.
According to a press release from Public Health Delta and Menominee Counties, one horse in Menominee County and two horses in Marquette County have tested positive for Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE). None of the three horses had been previously vaccinated against EEE, a serious viral disease transmitted via mosquitoes.
The virus causes neurological disease in the horse, but can also be transmitted to people, poultry, and other animals such as dogs and deer.
Vaccinations against EEE come in several varieties — called four, five and six-way protections. The four-way vaccine protects against East and Western Equine Encephalitis, West Nile, and Tetanus. Horse owners are recommended to give this type of vaccine to their animal annually or in the spring.
Marquette County resident Jesse Malcori lost her horse Rocky to EEE earlier this month.
Malcori first noticed Rocky wasn’t himself when he became very lethargic and was off balance when standing.
“He became very unsteady on his feet,” said Malcori, adding he also had a high fever as a result of the virus.
Unsure of what was happening to her companion of 15 years, Malcori gave Rocky pain relievers and penicillin thinking maybe it was a cold. But, as the days went on, Malcori noted Rocky wasn’t getting any better. By the third day, the horse began to become very agitated with Malcori and her family.
Malcori decided it was time to bring Rocky to a vet. Because there are no large animal vet clinics in Marquette, Malcori had to make a trip to the closest clinic, located in Houghton.
By the time she and her son made the almost two-hour drive, Rocky’s health had declined rapidly and he was foaming at the mouth — a tell-tale sign of the disease rabies.
While at the vet, Malcori said Rocky became unresponsive to her voice, which was unusual for him. In addition, Rocky wasn’t responding to touch, explained Malcori. A healthy horse will blink when a person reaches for their eyes, noted Malcori, adding Rocky didn’t even try when the vet touched his eyes.
The 1,500-pound horse then had a stroke, said Malcori. At this point, she knew Rocky’s life was in serious trouble.
“We were worried he wouldn’t come out of it,” said Malcori.
Following the stroke, the painful decision was made to humanely euthanize the horse.
After Rocky passed, the vet recommended Malcori send samples from Rocky to determine what caused his death. Because he had foamed from the mouth, the veterinarian urged to test for rabies. To test for rabies, Malcori said the horse’s brain and blood samples are taken and sent to a lab at Michigan State University. It was the results from that testing that confirmed Rocky had passed away from EEE, said Malcori.
Malcori said the disease could have been prevented from a vaccination, which the horse had never received.
“His life could have been saved,” said Malcori. “It was a huge wake up call to get vaccinated.”
So far, 10 horses in the U.P. have shown signs of sickness including animals in Eben, Wilson, and Sagola, noted Malcori.
Since it is late the year for mosquitoes, Malcori said information gathered shows the virus could have been spread in the two-week warm spell the Upper Peninsula experienced in late September.
With birds starting to migrate as temperatures began to drop prior to the heat spell, Malcori said mosquitoes could have contracted the virus from the birds, which in turn, was transferred to horses. EEE takes about two weeks before it will fully take effect, added Malcori.
While the sickness is unusual in the U.P., a horse from Menominee County did test positive last year and one human case of EEE was diagnosed in 2016, stated Public Health.
Throughout Michigan, a total of seven EEE infections have been reported in horses this year, with the additional four cases occurring in the Lower Peninsula.
“Animals becoming sick from EEE are an indication infected mosquitoes may be present in the region,” stated the health department. “It is recommended that people take steps to safeguard themselves against mosquito bites by applying repellent, and wearing protective clothing. Managing your property to control mosquito populations is also recommended.”
It is important for humans to protect themselves against mosquitoes, as there are no vaccines available to prevent humans from getting EEE.
Malcori urged equine owners around the state to contact their veterinarian to make sure their animals are up-to-date on all vaccinations.
“I know I will vaccinate,” said Malcori.
Although Malcori was faced with one of the toughest choices in her life, she said with the creation of the Facebook page and horse community coming together, there is some good that came from this tragedy.
“I’m glad out of a bad situation we were able to turn it around and make something good happen out of it,” said Malcori.
The Facebook page called “You are my Rock–Equine friends coming together to help each other,” is a horse community centered page focused on spreading information about the importance of vaccinations and other resources that equine owners might need such as hay, saddles, trailers, and more, explained Malcori.