Vivid Description of WNV Symptoms

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I appreciated your March article on West Nile virus, since my horse, Zip, was one of the 37 positive Georgia horses last year. My vet, Dr. Mary Rogers, is convinced that there were many more positive cases than were actually confirmed. She had 19 of the confirmed WNV horse cases in Georgia and 33 “potentials,” horses that didn’t have EEE, WEE or rabies.

Morbidity was high over a long period; mortality was 33%. One two-year-old WNV horse was severely affected last year, apparently recovered, but just died of renal failure, possibly secondary to West Nile virus treatment last July.

I thought Horse Journal readers might want to know the symptoms my horse displayed, as observed by my barn manager, Debbie Allen. I was in another city when he began to display symptoms.

Zip is an energetic, healthy, six-year-old Quarter Horse. On that Saturday morning, he ate well and seemed normal. By evening, however, he was off his feed, spooked at a noisy tractor and other things he’d normally ignore and, when he spooked, displayed a slight lack of coordination in his hindquarters.

Sunday morning, he was still slightly off feed. He had no fever and seemed otherwise normal. That evening, still off feed, he acted “hyper” at noises and violently rejected attempts to touch his face. Zip normally loves attention and ignores loud noises — he’s a parade veteran. I became concerned about neurological implications, possibly cranial nerve involvement.

I was unable to reach Dr. Rogers, so I called another vet, who laughed off any problem. Debbie asked about WNV possibility, but the vet said, “There’s nothing we can do anyway if it’s WNV, and it does not sound like much of a problem he has.” All my horses receive EEE, WEE shots every three months, as mosquitoes are abundant year round in south Georgia. We also vaccinate the horses every year for rabies.

At 8 a.m. Monday, Zip was ataxic, staggering and depressed. He had a definite symmetrical “droop” of upper and lower lips. (Veterinary Editor’s Note: The lip droop is a very common symptom of WNV.) This time we were able to get Dr. Rogers, but she was swamped with WNV cases already. She said to give Banamine IV and she’d get there as soon as she could.

I drove to the barn. Debbie continued with Zip. When I arrived, nearly noon, Zip was intermittently awake and alert, with periods of depression and drowsiness. At times while standing still, he would fall forward, knees buckling, nearly falling. Only quick action by the handler at his head helped him keep his feet.

He appeared to be having narcoleptic-type attacks. He now also lacked front-end coordination, in addition to the hind-end difficulties, and definite facial nerve involvement. Apparently he could swallow well enough, as he was not drooling saliva, and could drink some water. He was sweating, too, mostly on his neck. We felt unable to check his rectal temperature, due to his staggering and falling about.

Zip grew steadily worse. Friends came to help. We were waiting for the vet and a horse trailer to arrive so we could take him to the University of Florida (UF), which was 90 miles south of us. As he worsened, the only way we kept him on his feet was to spray water from a hose in his face, shout at him, and pull up on halter lead ropes to help him keep his feet. Masses of hands pushed against his body to help hold him up. Had he gone down, he was far too uncoordinated to get up again, and we would have been unable to get him to UF.

Dr. Rogers arrived about 1:30 and gave Zip Dexamethasone, Banamine, and diluted DMSO by stomach tube, checked vital signs, drew blood for multiple blood tests, including a complete blood count, electrolytes, WNV, EEE and WEE.

By 2:30 when the trailer arrived, the horse was much improved and able to walk onto the step-up trailer with some assistance due to his coordination problems.

On arrival in UF, Zip was still ataxic, but he was able to back off the trailer onto grass/dirt uneventfully. He stayed a week, receiving steroids, IV fluids and bute paste. They did a spinal tap and tested for EPM. Everything was negative except WNV.

This is a strong, healthy gelding with no recent stresses or illness and no trauma. No other horses had been ill nor did his pasture mates become ill, although Dr. Rogers immediately vaccinated all our other horses for WNV. (Veterinary Editor’s Note: It’s fairly common to find only one horse on any particular farm affected by WNV.)

When Zip returned home, he had lost some weight, but the “lip droop” had diminished. In a month, lip droop was gone. By six months, he was still “traveling wide” behind, but no other aftereffects were noted. In eight months, we were unable to detect any changes in his way of going or personality.

The Georgia state vet has made visits and calls to check on him. Zip is apparently completely well. We’ll continue to vaccinate all our horses for WNV. From what I have read, Zip should continue to show immunity to WNV for as much as 18 to 24 months, but I’ll vaccinate him anyway.

I’m convinced that my vet’s excellent treatment saved Zip’s life, and UF continued my vet’s excellent work to save Zip, but I wanted to share this experience with your readers.

-Dr. Charese Pelham
Georgia