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Possums May Harm Your Horse

While you cannot control every stray possum that might spend a night in your barn, you should know that these animals may be carriers of the neurological disease EPM (equine protozoal myeloencephalitis) which is actually introduced into your horse by virtue of a single-celled protozoon that resides in the intestines of the very possum in your barn.

The possum defecates the protozoa which may then be ingested by your horse completes the infection. The good news is the fact that not each exposed horse will actually become infected. The bad news is spelled out by the vast neurological damage an infected horse experiences as part of its immune system’s fight against the parasitic invasion.

As a matter of fighting the infection, the horse will experience inflammation within its spinal cord. Further complicating matters is the possibility of a misdiagnosis because the inflamed

spinal cord causes symptoms that are congruous with Wobbler’s Syndrome, West Nile Virus disease, and even Equine Herpes. Fortunately there is a specified test available for EPM that requires a simple blood sample or in more questionable cases a bit of spinal fluid, yet even this test is not fool proof.

To make matter worse, there is no uniform mode of infection; in other words, a horse may show signs of infection immediately or it may take a while before the presence of the parasite will begin causing visible nerve damage. Once your horse has been diagnosed, the parasite needs to be killed via a plethora of effective drugs. Do not delay treatment as an early regimen will increase the likelihood of your horse’s recovery! If you catch the illness too late or wait too long to begin treatment, the odds are good that extensive and irreversible nerve damage will already have occurred. Treatment is not cheap, and there are no guarantees for success, even if you catch the parasite before it does most of its damage.

Obviously, an ounce of prevention is the answer to this parasitic infection, and if you are able to control your possum population within your barn and on your pasture, you will ensure that an infection of your horses is less likely. While it is impossible to completely possum proof a stable, you should take simple precautions such as covering your grain bins and feed troughs at night (possums are nocturnal). Make certain that all watering buckets are kept clean as well, since this will not only prevent the spread of equine protozoal myeloencephalitis but also of a host of other illnesses.

Read the next horse health tips article on Snake Bites.
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