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West Nile virus threatens unvaccinated Utah horses

Horses graze in a field near Jackson, Wyoming.
Holly Mandarich

The blistering heat of summer is finally starting to cool down, but mosquitoes are still out on trails, fields and ponds, which means the threat of mosquito-borne illnesses is still a risk.

West Nile virus has been in Cache Valley for several years, and is a particular risk for horses, who are both highly susceptible to getting bitten and more likely to die or have lasting effects from the virus.

According to the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food (UDAF), this year saw the highest number of virus-positive mosquito pools ever seen in Utah, and with it, 13 positive cases of West Nile in horses, including four in the last month in Uintah and Duchesne counties.

Bailee Woolstenhulme, a public information officer for the UDAF, said this is a sign people aren’t getting their horses vaccinated.

“Sometimes when you’re not hearing about it all the time it's easy to forget you need to do the annual vaccination," Woolstenhulme said. "So we're really hoping to raise awareness to remind them to get the vaccination because it can prevent the horses from contracting the disease.”

The vaccine is up to 95% effective in horses. The UDAF said vaccination is important because 1/3 of horses that contract the virus end up being euthanized.

Woolstenhulme added that it can also help prevent the spread of the virus to other parts of the state if it’s not already present.

West Nile virus will become less of a problem once the temperature drops enough to kill off the mosquito populations, but Woolstenhulme said it’s still important to keep cases low until they return in spring.

“I would recommend that they consult with their veterinarian on the best time to vaccinate their horses," she said. "But the vaccine does last a full year, so if they were to give it now, they would need to renew it next fall.”

Woolstenhulme said other ways to prevent the disease include repellant and preventing mosquito breeding grounds, such as sources of stagnant water.

Duck is a general reporter and weekend announcer at UPR, and is studying broadcast journalism and disability studies at USU. They grew up in northern Colorado before moving to Logan in 2018, so the Rocky Mountain life is all they know. Free time is generally spent with their dog, Monty, listening to podcasts, reading or wishing they could be outside more.