March 31, 2006

Deadly Syndrome Detected in Fla. Horses

OCALA, Fla. (AP) - A syndrome that can cause pregnant mares to abort their foals has been confirmed in at least one Florida horse, several years after a devastating outbreak of the disease in Kentucky's thoroughbreds.

Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome was detected in an Alachua County horse euthanized on March 18 at the University of Florida Veterinary Medical Center, marking the state's first appearance of the condition. Three other cases are under investigation as being consistent with the syndrome.

The disease wiped out more than 3,000 thoroughbred foals in Kentucky in 2001-2002, nearly a third of all foals. That caused more than $500 million in losses.

University of Florida clinic pathologist Dr. John Roberts confirmed the Alachua County case after visiting the unidentified farm. But he said he doubts Florida's outbreak will compare to Kentucky's, which he was also involved in diagnosing.

"It's going to decrease over the next few weeks," he said. "Probably last week was the worst week for it and we didn't have that many cases."

Experts believe the disease is caused when a pregnant mare ingests Eastern tent caterpillars, which often nest in the cherry trees found on the Alachua County farm where two of the cases were found. Scientists said the caterpillar carries bacteria that don't become a problem unless they enter a pregnant mare's womb and attaches itself to the placenta.

Complications of the syndrome include miscarriages and early term fetal losses in mares recently bred back to stallions.

The caterpillars' one-year life cycle should come to an end soon in Florida, said Terrence Fitzgerald, an expert on Eastern tent caterpillars at the State University of New York College at Cortland. But before the season ends, the caterpillars will lay eggs, which will produce a new crop next year, he said.