As my husband left for work early Wednesday morning, he felt compelled to call me from his cell before he'd even made it out of the driveway. It had already been determined that the day was going to be a Bad One for me, pain-wise
, so I'd loaded up on medication, sent Bella to preschool with Daddy, and settled in for the duration. When I answered the phone, Alex said, after making his apologies for even having to bother me, knowing how bad I felt, that he didn't like the look of the way Magic, our sweet little Shetland pony mare
, was lying down in the pasture. "I think you'd better go out and check on her," he said. "Maybe call the vet." Now, my husband has only known horses as long as he's known me (about 6 years), but he has always shown good instinct with animals and a sharp eye for what Arkansas horsepeople refer to as "ADR (Ain't Doin' Right) Syndrome." He may not know everything about horses, but he knows "ADR" when he sees it, and has twice before made what turned out to be lifesaving calls of this nature, so when he speaks in this vein, I listen, and I dragged myself out to the pasture to see what was up with Little Miss Magic.
And that is when I saw something horrible; something I'd never seen before in all my years with horses.
This is a very short (about 5 seconds) Quick-Time video of a horse behaving in the way that I witnessed Magic behaving when I managed, with much difficulty, to get the pony to her feet. Having never seen anything like it before, with the stumbling, inability to remain standing, trembling, and muscle stiffness, my first thought was anaphylactic shock, and I looked for signs of snake-bite. Nothing. I called for Alex to turn around and come back home after dropping Bella at preschool, then called Pallone Veterinary Clinic in Rosebud. Dr. Mike Pallone has always been, for us, reliable, quick to respond, and one heck of a diagnostician. My blood pressure lowered and my pulse slowed, as I calmed just upon the arrival of the Super Vet-Mobile.
Doc took one look at the pony, whose prone body we'd managed to get a packing quilt underneath for her comfort, listened briefly to my description of her repeatedly falling over stiffly, like a piece of cordwood (seriously, it was like seeing a horse statue topple over), and just popped out the diagnosis quick as a whip: "West Nile." And then he said the words that really shocked me: "I treated five infected horses in this area yesterday, all in one day, and just had to put down two. It's all over the place." My heart sank. But the Good Doctor was quick to add that, thanks to Alex's sharp eye, we'd caught it early enough for an excellent prognosis, as the expression of symptoms in West Nile infection is something that comes on suddenly, like a lightning-strike. And this pony had been right as rain just the night before.
With a lot of human muscle and effort, the pony patient was transferred from the large, rocky, hillside pasture to a flat, grassy enclosure in which our showdogs normally have their outdoor time. Getting on level ground instead of a hillside helped considerably in Magic's being able to keep her feet, and Doc Pallone got right to work.
The course of treatment in this we-got-to-it-just-in-time case is a twice-daily liter of I.V. fluids containing DMSO, steroids, and Banamine (an anti-inflammatory/pain-killer), and then some oral meds to protect her delicate equine tummy from the potential damage those types of drugs can do, and electrolytes to help insure against dehydration.
Doc stitched the I.V. port in place, since we'll be administering I.V. medications via liter bags of fluids for the next several days, and this saves the patient from being stuck over and over. (Plus, it makes it a heck of a lot easier on laypeople like us when we're not struggling to find a vein with a flashlight for the nighttime dosing.)
I think our patient was of the opinion that having I.V. tubing looped over one's ear was slightly undignified, but it was an ignominy that she was willing to suffer patiently. I am happy to report that by the time of her second I.V. last night, she was feeling enough better that she was even stamping her cute little feet and pawing impatiently at having to stand there and wait for that I.V. to run its course, because, standing still? BOOOOOOORING. Today's outlook is even better.
I wanted to post about this here, because there are SO many horses in central Arkansas and the rest of the state, and apparently we're seeing another outbreak of West Nile Virus among our horses, similar to the one in 2001. A lot of people have asked me questions about transmission and contagion, so I found a helpful graphic that illustrates the typical transmission cycle of West Nile virus. Basically, it is infected mosquito to bird, infected bird to mosquito, and finally infected mosquito to horses, ponies, and guys wearing turtleneck sweaters with blazers.
But seriously, the main thing I took away from my questioning Of Dr. Pallone was that if you see any strange behavior from your horse or pony, especially as involves its balance and coordination, ACT QUICKLY. Better to be wrong about WNV than to wait so long "to be sure," that it's too late to save your equine friend. Although about 1 in 3 horses diagnosed with West Nile do ultimately die, that may have more to do with how soon it's discovered and treated than with any other single factor, because the onset is SO acute. The sooner, the better, and even if your horses are mostly "pasture potatoes," please make the effort to check on them at least twice daily. Following are the symptoms of West Nile Virus infection in horses, as listed on this informative site, in the general (but not written in stone) order of progression.
Stumbling or tripping
Muscle weakness or twitching
Loss of appetite
Depression or Lethargy
Head Pressing or tilt
Wandering or circling
Inability to swallow
Inability to stand up
(It's interesting to note that the website I reference above advises you to contact your veterinarian immediately if you see ANY of the above symptoms. Even through our recent scare, Alex and I could not help but to imagine a Monty-Pythonesque exchange between someone who has just noticed the "symptom" of DEATH, and the veterinarian they've called to "come and check that out" for them: "Uh, yeah, doc...I just noticed that my horse is dead, and I know from this website that that can be a symptom of West Nile Virus, so I need you to come on out here ASAP...:" OK, Husband and I were maybe a little, um, punchy after our close call, and gallows humor releases stress, all right? Stop judging us.)
But seriously (AGAIN): There is an equine vaccine for West Nile Virus, and most of my horses have had it, but it just didn't occur to us when we added the pony to our ranks last year, as she was pregnant. There is still a considerable amount of controversy about the vaccine, which was released hurriedly and without a whole lot of clinical testing, and the efficacy of which is to a large extent unknown, but based on his own personal experience, and the anecdotal data he's been able to gather, Dr. Pallone estimates the vaccine's efficacy at about 80%, which, as he says, is WAY better odds than NO protection. So YES, he advocates giving the vaccine, and contacting your vet about the advisability of administering the vaccine to your horses and/or ponies. (Our pony's breeder did report some problems, in her experience, with spontaneous abortion in pregnant pony mares vaccinated, so do consult your vet about your particular situation.)
Aside from the vaccine, the best preventive measure you can take to protect yourself and your animals from West Nile Virus is to control the mosquito population around your place, and your and your horses' exposure to them. If you have dogs, you should already be doing this, due to the threat of heartworm infestation, which has been known to occur even with heartworm prevention medication being given (we make mistakes in dosing, dogs spit out the medication without us knowing--stuff happens). The simplest common-sense measures you can employ are getting rid of any standing water around your place, and using fly spray/mosquito repellant on your horses and yourself.
The Drs. Pallone (both Mike and his wife Karen are outstanding veterinarians) and their outstanding staff--great people like Kim Marsh, pictured above--can be reached at their practice and hospital in Rosebud, (501) 556-5355. The staff is extremely helpful and happy to answer any questions, and if you're not convenient to the area they cover--which is surprisingly large--they might be able to recommend an equine veterinarian closer to you who can help you out. The Pallones also run a top-of-the-line stallion station and breeding facility, at their farm, Rose Hill Arabians, where they specialize in breeding Straight Egyptian Arabian horses. I will be sending the clinic a link to this post, in case I have made any grievous errors or omissions that Dr. Pallone feels a need to address in the comments. What I have reported here is strictly the experience of ourselves and one sweet little pony.