Thursday, May 16, 2002

Foal losses decrease from 2001

Scientists not ready to declare syndrome's cause

By Steve Bailey
The Associated Press

        LEXINGTON — Duncan Taylor watched helplessly last spring as a mysterious illness killed dozens of foals on his family's thoroughbred farm.

        Some lived only for hours, if at all. Other mares miscarried.

        “It was one of those things where you kept telling yourself, "It can't get any worse.' Then it kept getting worse,” said Mr. Taylor, president of Taylor Made Farm. “The fact that it was going on all over the region and nobody knew what was causing it made it even more frightening.”

        Mr. Taylor is far less anxious this year, knowing the illness is not as bad as it was in 2001, when it claimed nearly 5 percent of the state's annual foal crop and 20 percent of the foals that would have been born on Kentucky farms this year.

        A check of 74 pregnant mares at Taylor Made last May found more than a third had lost their foals. Of the 400 pregnant mares there this spring, not one has lost a foal to the disease, Mr. Taylor said.

        “I'm not ready to say we've weathered anything, but I can say without hesitation that I feel a lot better today than I did at this time last year,” he said.

        Kentucky typically produces about 10,000 foals annually, which is about 30 percent of North America's yearly thoroughbred foal population.

        Numbers released this week by the University of Kentucky show a sharp decline in the number of dead foals submitted to its Livestock Disease Diagnostic Center this year.

        From April 28 through Saturday, 173 foals of all breeds were delivered to the center for examination, down from the 385 brought in during the same period a year ago. About 120 of those submitted this year have had characteristics consistent with the illness, Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome.

        “A lot of the farms I work that had a lot of problems last year haven't had any deaths year, and that's encouraging,” said equine veterinarian Chet Blackey, who travels from farm to farm checking mares and foals. “But I've heard of some other farms where as many as 50 or 60 percent of their mares have been affected.”

        Since the beginning of the year, the diagnostic center has received 697 equine abortions, compared with 878 during the same period last year.

        Area veterinary hospitals also are admitting fewer sick foals, and those that are being treated are surviving at higher rates.

        “It's down significantly from what we experienced last year,” said Dr. Bill Bernard, internal medicine specialist at Lexington's Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital.

        “We're having a few trickle in — maybe one one day, two the next, then none the next — that have symptoms consistent with the illness — weakness, respiratory trauma and low blood glucose.”

        Scientists still have not identified the cause of the illness, although a likely culprit is the eastern tent caterpillar.

        The fuzzy, black-and-yellow caterpillars, abundant across central Kentucky each spring, feed on cyanide-laced wild cherry tree leaves, which are poisonous to horses. Scientists believe the caterpillars and their droppings, called frass, may somehow be passing toxin to the horses feeding on contaminated grass.

        Experiments conducted by Kentucky's College of Agriculture show there is a likely correlation.

        In the study, 29 pregnant mares housed at the university's research farm were exposed to different levels of caterpillar infestation over 10-day periods in small pens. More than 70 percent with exposure to caterpillars or frass lost their pregnancies.

        “That's been the first trial in which we've actually been able to replicate the illness,” said university agronomist Jimmy Henning, who oversees environmental sampling on 13 farms. “We haven't been able to do that in any of our other tests. I'd say that makes it a little more than coincidental.”

        But Mr. Henning is not ready to blame the caterpillar yet. He and other researchers are looking at toxins in pasture grass, molds, bacteria and fungi; other cyanide sources such as clover; and abnormal weather patterns.

        Mr. Taylor said many farms, including his own, have acted to protect against the illness.

        Taylor Made sprayed for caterpillars and chopped down some cherry trees, and is one of the few farms to muzzle mares before they are sent out to pasture for exercise.

        “From the things I've heard, the farms that are having the most problems are the ones that did very little as far as preventive management,” Mr. Taylor said. “We went into this year with a plan and tried some different things. To this point, it's paid off for us.”


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