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Potomac Horse Fever (PHF) Overview
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Potomac Horse Fever (PHF) or N. risticii is a febrile (Fever) disease affecting horses. It is also known as Shasta River Crud and Equine Monocytic Ehrlichiosis. It was first described in areas surrounding the Potomac River northwest of Washington, D.C., in the 1980s, but cases have been described in many other parts of the United States, such as Minnesota, California, and Pennsylvania. Currently, it is found in more than 40 states within the US, as well as in Canada. The causative agent of PHF is Neorickettsia risticii (formerly Ehrlichia risticii), an intracellular rickettsial bacterium.
Potomac Horse Fever Transmission: Accidental ingestion of the mayfly is thought to be one of the main modes of transmission of PHF.The vector of Neorickettsia risticii is believed to be a trematode (fluke). The life cycle of the fluke takes it through freshwater snails and back into water, where it is ingested by the larval stages of several aquatic insects, including caddis flies and mayflies. It is thought that the main mode of infection is by accidental ingestion of infected adult insects, who may fly into barns and die in stalls or on pastures after eclosure. Experimental infection has been produced with oral administration of infected insects and subcutaneous inoculation of N. risticii. All attempts to transmit the disease using ticks have failed. Several outbreaks of PHF have been found to coincide with mass emergences of burrowing mayflies of the genus Hexagenia; these insects hatch en masse and may be found littering the ground in nearby stables, where they are attracted by light. The entire natural history and life cycle of N. risticii has yet to be elucidated, but bats and birds may be wild reservoirs of infection. Unlike other causes of acute colitis in horses, such as Salmonella and Clostridium, PHF is not spread directly from horse to horse.
Potomac Horse Fever Symptoms: Symptoms include fever; depression (sometimes profound); loss of appitite; mild, colic-like symptoms; decreased manure production; profuse, watery, non-fetid diarrhea; endotoxemia; edema due to protein imbalances; abortion by pregnant mares; and, in 20-40% of cases, acute laminitis and founder usually within 3 days of the initial symptoms, thought to be secondary to the endotoxemia. Death may occur and is usually due to severe laminitis leading to founder.
Horses may not always display any other symptoms beyond a fever.
Potomac Horse Fever Diagnosis: Diagnosis of PHF is accomplished by measuring antibody titers or PCR testing to look for the bacterium in the blood and feces. However, most veterinarians opt to initiate treatment right away, as the disease can progress quite quickly. Veterinarians may also run complete blood counts and chemistry and electrolyte panels to determine the course of care. Radiographs may be taken to track the progress of laminitic horses.
Potomac Horse Fever Treatment: N. risticii responds well to tetracycline antibiotics. Mild cases may be treated with oral doxycycline, while severe cases are usually treated with intravenous oxytetracycline. Supportive care for severe cases is aimed at minimizing the effects of endotoxemia and preventing laminitis. This may include intravenous fluids and electrolytes to counteract the diarrhea; NSAIDs such as Banamine (flunixin meglumine); intravenous dimethyl sulfoxide; administration of products such as Biosponge or activated charcoal via nasogastric tube to bind endotoxins; polymyxin B or plasma for endotoxemia; supportive shoeing; low doses of intramuscular acepromazine; and pentoxifylline.