Lyme disease in horses is becoming increasingly prevalent in the United States, with endemic status in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. Many of us know of, have worked with, or have owned a horse that has been exposed to Lyme disease at some point in their lives, and as the disease spreads, unfortunately more equestrians are getting first hand experience with this beast of a disease.

To help you wade through all of the information out there, we’ve pulled together this list of fact and fiction when it comes to Lyme disease in horses.

Lyme disease in horses is only found in weak, aged, or baby horses. Fiction.

Sadly, the prevalence of Lyme disease has grown so rapidly that it is not only a disease for the weak, immunosuppressed, or very young or very old horses. Any horse that lives in an area where ticks are found is susceptible to the disease, and horses of any age and condition from the pasture pet to the top competitor can contract Lyme disease.

There is no vaccination for Lyme disease in horses. Fact.

As per the AAEP (American Association of Equine Practitioners), there are no licensed or approved vaccinations for Lyme disease in horses. This means that prevention is key, and tick management and use of repellents is the best way to protect your horse. Immune boosting supplements can also help, but at this time nothing is proven to prevent contraction of this awful disease.

There are a variety of tests for Lyme disease in horses that are considered reliable today. Fact.

The truth is, several years ago, it was hard to tell if a horse was just exposed to the disease or actually had contracted the disease and needed treatment, but advances in testing have allowed much more detail to be reported and treatment options to be tailored specifically to the condition, symptoms, and test results for each individual horse.

Snap tests for horses are an inexpensive alternative to more robust testing options. Part fact, part fiction.

The Snap 4DX Plus Test by IDEXX was originally designed for dogs, but has been approved for use in equines, and it is true that it is accurate and less expensive than the traditional Western Blot titer test, or the now more commonly used Multiplex Assay test developed by Cornell University’s Animal Health Diagnostic Center. However, the simple snap test just shows a positive or negative and doesn’t quantify what type of infection your horse has. To find out more information on the type of infection (acute/recent exposure, or chronic), you would need to do the full Multiple Assay by Cornell.

If my horse is diagnosed with Lyme disease, he won’t be able to be ridden or compete again. Fiction.

Over the years, the treatment options for Lyme disease in horses has expanded greatly, and there are far more options today than there were a few years ago. There’s a variety of oral and intravenous antibiotics that combat the disease, and good supportive care such as immune boosting supplements and good nutrition can help a horse with Lyme disease recover. Every horse is different, so if you suspect your horse has Lyme disease, consult your veterinarian.

Different treatments may work for different types of Lyme disease infections in horses. Fact.

With more details offered in the new testing by Cornell, we can now identify if a horse is recently exposed, suffering from the acute early stages of the infection, or experiencing chronic infection. Treatment may vary based on how long the horse has been experiencing symptoms and the details of their test results.

For example, a horse with recent exposure and early stages of acute infection may respond to doxycycline since the disease has not yet settled in the horse’s system. However a horse with a low grade chronic infection, while their test counts may be on the lower side of the positive range, may need more aggressive, longer term treatment with the more expensive antibiotic, minocycline. Both drugs are tetracycline antibiotics, but based on their different chemical makeup, can treat horses differently.

So what do I do if I think my horse may have Lyme disease?

The short answer is to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. In some cases horses can show a multitude of symptoms and actually not have Lyme disease, but be afflicted by other issues or lamenesses, while in other cases, a low grade chronic Lyme infection can be barely detectable by outward symptoms and the horse may just seem slightly “off” in some way.

The Animal Hospital of Sussex County offers both the Snap 4DX Plus test by IDEXX as well as the Multiplex Assay through Cornell University’s Animal Health Diagnostic Center. If your horse doesn’t have outward symptoms, but is in a high endemic area such as Sussex County and the surrounding areas, a quick, inexpensive snap test can get you a simple positive or negative so that you can determine how to proceed. A positive snap test should always be followed up with the multiplex test so that the stage of infection can be determined and a specific treatment plan for your horse can be developed.

If your horse is already showing symptoms, we recommend the full multiple assay so that you can get the detailed information you need to start treatment right away and help your horse on the road to recovery.

Don't let Lyme disease sidleline you and your horse from enjoying time together!

Don’t let Lyme disease sidleline you and your horse from enjoying time together!

Remember that Lyme can masquerade as other issues, diseases, and lamenesses, and it can be extremely hard to diagnose based on observations of symptoms alone. A blood test is ALWAYS advised if you think your horse may be exposed, as early diagnosis and treatment is key to recovery! Concerned about your horse’s exposure to ticks and the Lyme disease they carry in our area? Schedule a consultation with one of our veterinarians today.