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Eastern, Western & Venezuelan Equine Encephalomyelitis

Synonyms: Sleeping Sickness EEE, WEE, VEE

Encephalitis is inflammation of the brain. Encephalomyelitis is inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. A number of different types of viral encephalitis/encephalomyelitis can occur in horses, including among others: Eastern, Western and Venezuelan Equine Encecphalomyelitis (EEE, WEE, and VEE, respectively).

These infections are transmitted to horses by infected mosquitos. The reservoir of the disease in the wild is birds. A mosquito bites an infected bird, takes in the virus, and then bites a horse and transmits the virus.

It is difficult to differentiate between the encephalitis types and West Nile Encephalomyelitis (without an antibody titer) because they all cause similar signs of disease. Symptoms include fever, depression and signs of neurologic disease (wobbliness, weakness), among many others.

EEE, WEE and VEE are reportable diseases in the USA, meaning that if a horse has or is suspected of having either of these disease, vets are required to report it to agricultural authorities (usually the State Veterinarian). These authorities may investigate the case as part of a larger effort to monitor equine health and coordinate with other states and the USDA APHIS in preventing the spread of illness or disease on a national and international level.

Viral encephalitis are all zoonotic. Infected horses cannot directly pass these diseases to other horses, animals or humans. EEE and WEE can be transmitted from infected birds to humans via mosquitos. VEE is the only one of these that can be transmitted from infected horses to humans via mosquitos. Because of this, if you have been exposed to a horse with (or suspected of having) EEE, WEE or VEE you should always contact your doctor. Infection by these viruses can cause life-threatening disease in humans.

Diagnosis is through blood antibody testing.

Treatment is primarily anti-inflammatories and supportive care.

I Might ObserveRelated Observations

Depressed, Dull, Sick or Lethargic
Cannot Seem to Get Up, Lying Down, Seems Aware
Noticeably Wobbly or Weak
Not Eating, Loss of Appetite, Not Hungry
Local Muscle Twitching
Abnormal Movement or Twitching of Lips
Horse Found Dead, Recently Seemed Healthy
Unconscious, Lying Down & Not Responsive
Eye is Making Abnormal Rapid & Jerky Movements
Struggles to Rise, Gets up with Difficulty
Lying Down & Paddling
Fever, Rectal Temperature Greater than 101.5 (in Adult)
Head in Corner or Against Wall, Head Pressing
Vision Seems Poor, Running Into Things or Objects
Down with Limbs Tipped Up, Cast
Seizures or Convulsions (in Adult)
Teeth Grinding (in Adult)
Leaning Against Stall Wall or Fence
Seems Dazed or Confused
Circling Compulsively in One Direction
Cannot Swallow, Difficulty Swallowing
Head Tilted or Cocked to Side
Sudden Collapse or Apparent Loss of Consciousness
Agitated, Anxious, Nervous or Stressed
Change in Personality, Strange Behavior
Mosquitoes Bothering or Biting Horse
Staring Into Space, Seems Unresponsive
Eyeballs Seem to be Pointing Different Directions
Incontinence, Urine Dribbling or Dripping
Manure, Not Passing Enough
Sick Horse Hyper-Reactive to Loud Sound or Sudden Movement
Local Muscle Twitching
Hypersensitive to Touch, Generally
Lip Quivering, Lip Flapping, Strange Movement of Lips
Manure is Watery, Diarrhea (in Adult)
Tongue Sticking or Hanging Out
Cannot Chew, Chewing Abnormally
Weight Loss, Thin, Losing Weight
Stretching Forelimbs Far Forward & Dipping Back
Abdominal Pain, Colic Signs
Hind-End Leans or Falls to One Side, One Hind Limb Seems Weak
Knuckling Over or Rolling Over on a Fetlock
Circling, Pacing or Weaving in Stall
Itching, Rubbing or Scratching, Generally
Drowsy, Seems to Fall Asleep on Feet, Could Even Collapse
Hind Limb Bows Outward at Hock When Walking

QUESTIONS TO ASK MY VET

  • Why do you think my horse has viral encephalitis?
  • What type of encephalitis do you think my horse has?
  • What is its severity and what are the treatment options?
  • What vaccination do you recommend in our area?
  • PREVENTION

    Reduction of horses' exposure to mosquitos is important. This includes good facilities management to decrease the mosquito population. This includes the use of fans and screens to reduce mosquito exposure, and mosquito/insect repellents applied to susceptible horses.

    Citronella products are helpful but should be used in combination with other strategies. Keep horses in protected stalls during times of high mosquito activity.

    Reduce mosquito breeding areas. Eliminate all pools of low lying stagnant water around equine facilities. Replace water for animals every three days (at minimum). Stock ornamental ponds with mosquito eating fish.

    Vaccination is the key to prevention of these diseases. Vaccinate horses for EEE and WEE at least annually and in accordance with your vet's recommendation. These vaccines are recommended as "core" vaccines by the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP). Talk to your vet about vaccinating your horse for VEE if you live in States bordering Mexico.

    Vaccination has prevented severe epidemics of EEE and WEE in the United States, but small outbreaks still occur. VEE has not been identified in the U.S. for several decades as of the time of this writing, but the risk of contracting VEE is higher in States that border Mexico, where outbreaks have historically occurred.

    Helpful Terms & Topics in HSVGWritten, Reviewed or Shared by Experts in Equine Health

    Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP

    RELATED REFERENCES

    Higgins AJ, Snyder JR eds. The Equine Manual. 2nd Ed. Edinburgh: Elsevier Saunders 2006.

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