Horses smuggled across Texas border; USDA veterinarians find equine piroplasmosis

USDA veterinarian says illegal movement of animals is an ongoing concern in Texas.
Jul 01, 2012
By staff

U.S. Border Patrol agents recently seized 10 adult horses and four yearlings as their handlers attempted to cross the Texas border near El Paso, says the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC). The adult horses were later found to be infected with equine piroplasmosis.

Smugglers from Mexico were attempting to illegally cross the Rio Grande with the animals when federal officials intercepted them. The animals were turned over to veterinarians with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), who tested them for disease. All 10 of the of the adult animals tested positive for equine piroplasmosis, a blood-borne disease commonly seen in South and Central America but not considered endemic in the United States. If left undetected, the disease could have a serious effect on interstate and international equine transportation, says the TAHC.

Dr. Grant Wease, field veterinarian for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in El Paso, says the illegal movement of animals is an ongoing concern in Texas. "In some places, the Rio Grande poses no barrier at all to foot traffic for man or animal," he says. Approximately 280 head of cattle and 160 head of equine (primarily horses) were intercepted by the USDA along the Rio Grande in 2011, Wease says.

The TAHC also points out that many of the normal import processes for livestock coming into Texas have been adversely impacted by border violence. Because of unsafe conditions in Mexico, U.S. government employees are forbidden from conducting livestock and horse inspections south of the Texas border. As a result, the state retains horses in holding facilities and tests them for infectious diseases before allowing them to enter the U.S. However, at this time there are no open holding facilities in Texas, which has increased the incidence of smuggling. State officials are hoping to rectify this and resume the normal import process this summer by reopening a port in Nuevo Laredo, says Dee Ellis, DVM, state veterinarian and TAHC executive director.

"Racing quarter horses with some connection to Mexico appear to be at highest risk of testing positive to the emerging disease," Ellis says. "This situation highlights the ongoing border security problems Texas is facing, which leads to an increased risk of disease introduction for the Texas livestock population when animals enter our state illegally."

The USDA and TAHC are currently investigating the smuggling incident, focusing their efforts on both the source of the animals and their destination.