I thought it a bit strange yesterday when I saw a pink-handled pitchfork and broom hanging from a stall door of the isolation facility at Woodford Equine Hospital. After all, this wasn’t a color-coded team setup at a Pony Club rally (although such a scenario of matching muck buckets, pitchforks, and brooms hung in meticulous order would be familiar to me, from my Pony Club days!). But when I noticed the yellow-handled, red, blue, etc. implements on the stall doors alongside the pink ones, the reason became clear. Biosecurity.

In a day and age when hand sanitizer flows like water and eyes roll when people don’t cough into their elbow, biosecurity is not an unfamiliar term to us. We shudder at the thought of contracting a methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (say it five times, really fast) infection. We wince when we hear about the strangles outbreak at the barn down the lane. “Glad it’s not my barn.” But we’ve all encountered some kind of scenario when biosecurity has become an issue.

I ought to give you the context of the pink stall utensils: I was out at the clinic for my lunch hour, finishing up some reporting that I’m doing for one of our sister publications, Keeneland, about neonatal intensive care. It never hurts to be out with the horses and their amazing veterinarians, even if the smell of DMSO (dimethyl sulfoxide) permeates the air.

Given the challenge of explaining foal neonatal intensive care unit concepts to a reader who is not as familiar with horses as readers of The Horse are, I had to take a big step back and think about what a person unfamiliar with horse care would wonder about getting these little bodies well. Why do some horses go straight to isolation upon arrival at a vet hospital? How in the world do you prevent infection of catheter sites or a healing umbilicus site when there’s so much potential for contamination in a foal’s environment, especially with the little guy’s propensity to nap flat out in the straw, next to manure?

Lucas Pantaleon, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, and Fernanda Cesar, DVM, explained that they take a manure sample when patients first arrive to rule out Salmonella infection via culture, or, if a horse’s clinical signs suggest he or she might be harboring a bacterium (such signs as a history of diarrhea, high fever, certain white blood cell count indicators, a high respiratory rate, etc.). A positive culture or this constellation of clinical signs that raise a red flag for the vet?  Straight to isolation. There sit two sets of footbaths for entry to and exit from the barn aisle, booties, another footbath at the stall door, the use of special coveralls, gloves, and completely dedicated instruments and equipment for each case in the barn.

For some reason I used to think this was all for the protection of the patient--to avoid infecting an animal with a compromised immune status. That’s true to an extent, but these steps are usually made to ensure a suspected bacterium doesn’t make it into other stalls or into the regular barn. Or the vet’s sandwich.

Even in the clinic’s regular barn there are dedicated instruments, thermometers, disinfectant foot baths, coveralls, gloves, and booties, just to reduce the risk of any infection spreading or introducing any new bacteria. In addition, in both barns there are two complicated levels of cleaning regimen that are followed after horses are discharged and go home. Personnel test and retest the stall for any lingering bacteria after following these strict disinfection protocols.

As for protecting the individual patient, Pantaleon also described responsible antibiotic use (to avoid fueling antibiotic resistance), how he and other veterinarians and techs wrap foals' necks to cover the catheter site, and other methods used to decrease the likelihood of infection.

I believe these folks (the vets and staff at Woodford) have got it right. Better safe than sorry. I watch them closely, mimicking whatever the veterinarian in front of me is doing when entering a barn aisle, and asking before stepping in footbaths, to make sure I understand correct protocol. I’ve become kind of a biosecurity geek over the years, and it’s fun for me to see these disease preventive measures in use, and to hear how they really do work

My questions for you: What types of biosecurity rules in your barn do you observe, and why? Have you ever had to deal with a disease outbreak? (Please show discretion about farm and clinic names.)

Side Note: In the past I’ve tweeted regularly about posts I’ve read on the EquID blog, which is maintained by Dr. Scott Weese and others at the University of Guelph’s veterinary teaching hospital. Dr. Weese and his colleagues write interesting articles and commentary on managing disease outbreaks (and preventing them in the first place). Good stuff on biosecurity can be found there as well as in our archives on the subject. Also, the Guelph group offers a biosecurity calculator.