Rabies in Horses

December 27, 2016 (published)

Rabies is something we need to think about, not just in dogs and cats but also in horses. The reports that the disease is endemic in bats, skunks, raccoons, and foxes in many area of the United States. Rabies can occur from a bite of any of these wild animals as well as from domestic animals that were bitten by rabid animals. Cats are commonly affected with rabies and since most horse barns have cats for rodent control, the cats are a likely source of the virus and certainly should be vaccinated. Fortunately, only about 50 cases of rabies occur in horses every year in the United States but human exposure those rabid horses is more common. If a horse develops rabies and has been to a play day or rodeo, hundreds of people could be exposed. And this means hundreds of people potentially would need to get the rabies vaccine, which can cost up to $1,000 per person.

The reason so many people get exposed to rabid horses is because the disease has so many varied symptoms that it is difficult for a veterinarian to diagnose the condition. It's pretty common for humans to have been in direct contact with rabid horses because at first they tend to just act quiet and sick. Signs can appear similar to those in horses with colic, EPM, West Nile, and lameness, even to horses with ticks in their ears. One report indicated signs of furious rabies in horses, including aggression, occurred in only 40 percent of the cases, while general neurological signs and wobbling occurred in 30 percent, and excessive salivation and collapse occurred in 25 percent.  Most humans are exposed to horses by being bitten but just touching the horse could be a concern as the virus would be in the horse’s saliva and a cut on the hand could allow exposure. Vaccinate your horse for rabies as not doing so is not worth the risk.

VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email

Information and opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the author and are independent of the VIN News Service. Letters may be edited for style. We do not verify their content for accuracy.