The Wise Surfer

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The Internet can swiftly spread information — and misinformation. The “Whisper Syndrome” is a perfect example.

Whisper was a horse in Virginia that, along with four herd mates, was fed from large round hay bales. All five horses became ill with nonspecific symptoms, such as loss of appetite, depression, stretching out, diarrhea, elevated white counts and questionable neurological signs.

Whisper died. The other four were treated with the antibiotic Naxcel and lived. Whisper’s postmortem exam revealed severe colitis and a distended stomach but not the cause of death. The distressed owner posted notes about the case to many equine Internet group.

The owner’s theory is that the horse died due to an infection with a mutated, highly virulent Leptospira organism. Other “classical cases” began to surface. However, the symptoms tossed about as Listeria-related can occur in other common infections, such as the Clostridia. Clostridia and other harmful bacteria can also proliferate inside large round hay bales.

In addition, when I looked at the reports of symptoms, I noticed they varied widely, and no one had proof any of the horses had a Listeria infection. In fact, intestinal/nervous-system disease in horses caused by Listeria is rare. Nevertheless, many unexplained sudden deaths were suspected to be “Whisper Syndrome.”

Some horse owners now believe that any horse showing the vague symptoms associated with the Whisper Syndrome should be treated with Naxcel, and they’re pressuring veterinarians to do this. What many of these owners don’t realize is that Naxcel can cause a serious colitis and should not be used unless it’s specifically needed. Even more insidious is the damage to the client-veterinarian relationship.

A veterinarian confronted by an owner with an acutely ill horse who demands Naxcel for nonspecific symptoms is put in a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” situation. If the vet gives the drug for no clear indication and the horse develops colitis, he’s at fault. If the veterinarian doesn’t give the drug and the horse worsens, the owner will blame the veterinarian for not giving Naxcel, regardless of what is actually wrong with the horse.

Frankly, I believe the lessons are twofold: 1) Get your medical/veterinary advice from qualified personnel, and 2) Don’t feed your horses large round bales.

-Eleanor Kellon, VMD