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I lost my beloved mare to pythio­sis and hope to in­crease aware­ness of this dev­as­tat­ing dis­ease so fewer horses will share her fate.

EQUUS - - Equus - By Karen Hen­der­son

A dan­ger in the wa­ter

Belle was my dream horse. I’d raised her from birth, and she was one of the pret­ti­est Ap­paloosas I ever saw. She was in­tel­li­gent. Some­times I think she read my mind, and she could give me a look that was al­most hu­man.

Sadly, I lost Belle in May 2015 after a 10-month bat­tle with a horrible in­fec­tion I’d never heard of---pythio­sis.

In the spring of 2014 we had abun­dant rain here in Ge­or­gia. Part of our prop­erty flooded, and a few weeks later the pond was full of grasses and lily pads. My horses had ac­cess to this pond for 25 years. They would stand in the wa­ter to es­cape flies and oc­ca­sion­ally roll in it. In July 2014, I found two tiny cuts on Belle’s fore­arm and belly. Within days, they had grown, and they looked like sum­mer sores---in­fec­tions that oc­cur when flies de­posit stom­ach worm lar­vae in open wounds.

My vet­eri­nar­ian de­wormed Belle and treated the le­sions with an an­tibi­otic oint­ment. But two weeks later, the sores were six inches in di­am­e­ter. A biopsy con­firmed pythio­sis. Im­me­di­ately I searched on­line for in­for­ma­tion. My heart sank when I saw case photos. This was go­ing to be a long fight.

Pythio­sis oc­curs when a fun­gus-like or­gan­ism (Pythium in­sid­io­sum) en­ters a wound. The or­gan­ism is found in still or stag­nant wa­ter, and most an­i­mals pick it up while wad­ing, but it can also en­ter wounds near the mouth as a horse grazes wet grass. One hall­mark of pythio­sis is the ap­pear­ance of co­ral-like chunks of hard ma­te­rial, called “kunkers,” within the wound. Be­cause P. in­sid­io­sum isn’t a true fun­gus, it does not re­spond to an­ti­fun­gal or other an­timi­cro­bial med­i­ca­tions. The pri­mary treat­ment is sur­gi­cal re­moval of the in­fected tis­sue, fol­lowed by im­munother­apy shots.

Through­out the fall and win­ter, Belle bat­tled this nasty dis­ease. She seemed to re­spond to the first round of im­munother­apy shots, but after the sec­ond round the le­sions grew larger and blood­ier. Belle’s itch­ing was re­lent­less. Fi­nally, I had no choice but to end my beau­ti­ful mare’s suf­fer­ing.

Pythio­sis is not a re­portable dis­ease, so there’s no way to know how many cases oc­cur each year. How­ever, through so­cial me­dia I found 15 equine cases di­ag­nosed in Ge­or­gia in 2014 and 2015. And I’ve learned that in 2015, more than 1,000 serum shots were shipped to Ge­or­gia for horses and dogs.

The dis­ease is typ­i­cally found in trop­i­cal and sub­trop­i­cal cli­mates, and in the United States it has been seen pri­mar­ily in the states bor­der­ing the Gulf of Mex­ico. How­ever, iso­lated cases have oc­curred far­ther north. With warm­ing cli­mates, I wouldn’t be sur­prised if the nor­mal range of this dis­ease be­gins to spread north­ward.

And that could mean se­ri­ous trou­ble for horses, dogs and other mam­mals, in­clud­ing peo­ple. Start­ing treat­ment early is crit­i­cal: Re­search has shown the sur­vival rate may be 90 per­cent or higher among horses treated for pythio­sis within the first 30 days of in­fec­tion, but the rate drops to less than 50 per­cent when treat­ment isn’t started for 90 days after in­fec­tion. The chal­lenge with pythio­sis is that it can look like other com­mon prob­lems at first. Many vet­eri­nar­i­ans do not con­sider it as a pos­si­bil­ity right away.

If your horse de­vel­ops a bloody sore that con­tin­ues to grow de­spite treat­ment, ask your vet­eri­nar­ian to test for pythio­sis. I’d also sug­gest that you re­con­sider whether to al­low your horse ac­cess to ponds and other wet ar­eas.

If I can take any so­lace from los­ing Belle, I hope it will be from help­ing save other horses from this dread­ful dis­ease.

BELOVED: Belle lost a 10-month bat­tle with pythio­sis, which is caused by an or­gan­ism com­monly found in swamps and stag­nant wa­ter.

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