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Highly contagious equine virus killing horses at Venturing Hills Equestrian in Luskville

The farm is in desperate need of donations and it cares for its 39 horses, 12 of which are currently sick.
A horse and her handler. (via Shutterstock)

A farm in Luskville, Que. has been hit hard with an equine virus — and its in desperate need of help.

Venturing Hills Equestrian says they’ve had two horses die after contracting a very contagious neurological strain of a virus called EHV1 — also known as the equine herpes virus.

And out of the 39 horses they house on their property, 12 now have symptoms, and staff have been working around the clock to take care of the sick, and protect the part of the herd that is still healthy.

“We’re really struggling,” owner Rae Becke said. “We’re really alone and there are a lot of emotions going on. We just need to know that there are people there for us and they are there. That’s the biggest thing that’s kept us going.”

It all started on February 3, when staff noticed Eddy, a five-year old horse, was stumbling as he walked.

They administered medical aid until the veterinarian arrived. But in a couple of hours, Eddy lost all neurological function, and in several hours they had to make the decision to euthanize him.

The horse had belonged to an 18-year-old girl who had only had him for a couple of months.

Becke says it was originally belieed that the horse could have come down with a meningitis-type of virus, but when tests came back from the vet, and they confirmed the EHV1 virus.

Then on February 14, a second horse — 20-year-old Iris — who was completely healthy, also died from the virus.

Both horses were vaccinated against the EHV1, but it is highly contagious and very deadly, Becke explains — with a mortality rate of between 20 and 80 per cent.

And the contagion bubble of a horse can span as far as 36 ft.

The virus is so contagious, in fact, that neighbouring farms who have donated items can only drop them off at the road because going on the property risks bringing the virus back to their horses.

Becke says infected horses have been cordoned off to another section of the barn, away form the healthy horses.

This means staff must wear hazmat suits to take care of either, and must remove and switch hazmat suits when they switch to the other group of horses, as humans can be carriers and spread it to other horses.

“The sick horses are receiving round-the-clock, 24/7 care,” Becke explained. “The healthy horses are too, but from different staff.”

The healthy horses are often outside, too, in another area away from the infected.

And the stalls are deep cleaned and disinfected regularly.

But how did the horses catch the virus?

Becke believes it was when she purchased a new horse from a Toronto area farm and brought it back to Venturing Hills on January 15.

Becke says she had learned only after she acquired the horse, that three horses back at the Toronto stables had died of the virus on January 29. She was never informed of the situation so the new horse had been able to roam among the herd in its new home, which gave it ample time to infect other horses.

There are no other outbreaks in the Luskville area — so it’s the only way she thinks her stables could have gotten the infection — and there’s never been an outbreak in the area.

“It has been the hardest and darkest days we’ve ever faced, and it’s far from over,” Becke said. “We are battling this virus with everything we have.”

And it’s cost Becke and her team their sleep, getting only about an hour-and-a-half of sleep intervals in between, as regular check-ups and medication administering happens throughout the day and night.

It's also been emotionally taxing, Becke says. Losing animals is never easy, but then add the end-of-life conversation they need to have with the horse's owner, and it's that much more draining.

But it’s the bills that are adding up that are threatening the future existence of a family business, a passion that Becke holds dear.

For example, the anti-viral medication needed for the horses is between $500 and $2,000 — that’s just one of the medications the horses must take. Then there are the vet bills — and the veterinarian has been at the farm almost every day — labour, bio security, $40 heparin shots (a blood thinner) — which each horse needs four of daily — and cleaning products, among other mounting expenses.

“It’s a lot,” Becke said. “We can hope we can run this business in years to come; It’s really special to us.”

So the farm has set up an GoFundMe page for anyone who is interested in helping out with monetary donations.

So far, the fundraising has garnered $21,990 in donations — surpassing the farm’s $15,000 goal. But more will be needed as long as this virus stays firmly put.

For those not wanting to go through GoFundMe, they can make monetary donations or donate highly needed items, like clipboards, paper and medical gowns, for example by contacting Becke directly through Venturing Hills Equestrian website.

Funds raised will go direction and immediately toward medical expenses and the bio security measures the farm has put in place.

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