Equine crisis crosses bluegrass borders

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Jul 01, 2001

Though on a much smaller scale, several of Kentucky's closest neighbors - Indiana, Ohio, and West Virginia - have reported incidents that may be associated with the Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome (MRLS), which plagued Kentucky's mares and foals throughout April and May.

Indiana saw an increased number of fetal loss submissions concurrent with the time Kentucky experienced a surge in losses, reports Dr. Sandy Norman, director of the equine division at the Indiana State Veterinarian's office.

The increase in submissions may be directly linked to the publicity surrounding the incidence in Kentucky and may or may not reflect a true link to MRLS, she says. Number of fetuses lost or the cause of loss in Indiana has not yet been determined.

In Ohio, suspect cases were mostly concentrated in the southeast corner of the state, with one small pocket reported in Geauga, a northeast county.

Southeast Ohio appears to be a similar area where tent caterpillars were very heavy, according to Dr. Walter Threlfall, professor and head of the department of Theriogenology at Ohio State University.

"These caterpillars were in the water, in the feed buckets, in the hay and straw. Owners I have talked to said they were crawling up the sidewalks of their house, on their decks and porches," he says.

Threlfall believes the caterpillar (cyanogenic) theory holds "some credibility," even though he has no clear-cut explanation as to how they created the problem.

When Kentucky saw a surge in mares aborting their foals, Threlfall says the university also saw a surge in phone calls from concerned DVMs.

However, the Ohio diagnostic laboratory did not receive any increased number of fetuses, which Threlfall says "is a shame." Thus, the state has little data upon which to investigate and extract any sort of conclusive theory.

The lack of reporting to the laboratory may be an economic issue, says Dr. Grant Frazer, associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine at The Ohio State University. When he spoke with veterinarians, they indicated their clients declined sending in samples to the diagnostic lab due to the cost of the testing - $50. (Testing in Kentucky is free.) The testing includes necropsy, a bacterial culture, virologic testing and serologic testing.

Regardless of how many clients report losses, Threlfall says it is hard to determine which foal losses can actually be attributed to this particular syndrome.

"One of the things that happens in a situation like this is any foal loss near term is blamed on this particular syndrome," he says. "But we don't know which ones would've occurred anyway and which ones really were associated with this, except for the environmental factors."

In other states, West Virginia has reported similar fetal loss submissions, but the state veterinarian's office reports that the cause of those deaths remains unknown and cannot yet conclusively be attributed to MRLS. Conversely, the offices of the Pennsylvania and Illinois Departments of Agriculture report no incidences of fetal loss that are being attributed to the syndrome.