I finally connected with my vet. Harley's blood work indicates that he had a viral infection. My assumptions that we had fallen to the bottom of the triage list were most likely accurate, as no medication can be given to assist the body in fighting a virus. Fever reducers and anti-inflammatory medication (i.e. bute) can make him more comfortable as his immune system fights off the infection. Like people coping with the common cold or the flu, it is important to drink enough fluids, keep warm, and rest to allow the body to heal and to prevent secondary bacterial infections while the immune system is taxed. Since stopping the bute, Harley's legs are still tight, he does not have a fever, he is alert and looking back to normal. He has his blanket at night for added warmth along with his thick hair coat. Our nights have just started to drop to freezing; in fact, the first hard frost was the weekend of his mystery illness. I am so, so glad that I bought him a blanket this year. Besides keeping him warm and helping him maintain condition, having that blanket was so important for his bout with a virus. I am thinking that I was very lucky to not have needed one until this year, as Harley has never been sick before.
Here comes the science.
If you would like to read about the alfalfa instead, you will have to scroll down...a lot.
I hope you choose to read!
I was surprised that a couple people have asked me if the vet prescribed antibiotics for a viral infection. I decided to mention it here, because overuse or incorrect use of antibiotics is a community health concern. Medicinal antibiotics are typically derived from naturally occurring chemicals secreted by fungal organisms to prevent competition with bacteria for food sources (both are decomposers) or to prevent infection. The most well known is probably still penicillin, which is produced by penicillium, a genus of fungi which are commonly recognized as including fruit and bread molds, but also include a wider range of fungal organisms. Antibiotics specifically attack bacterial cells and have no effect on viruses, which are not classified as "living" since they require host cells to reproduce. The body's immune system can be trained to recognize specific viruses through vaccination, but this must be prior to infection. A "trained" immune system will recognize an invading virus and produce memory immune cells with the appropriate antibody very quickly, usually fighting the infection off before symptoms affect the host. This can be described as "learned immunity". The immune system is an awesome mechanism, as is vaccination.
The trouble with antibiotics stems from something called "antibiotic resistance". As a science teacher I have realized that this is also not well understood by many people. Antibiotic resistance is not something that the host (person, horse, dog, etc.) or the infective bacteria develop. Antibiotic resistance is a naturally-occurring trait in a certain percentage of infective bacteria due to genetic variation. Antibiotic resistant bacteria are always present, by chance and mutation, but the hope is that they are far outnumbered by bacteria who are susceptible to antibiotics. When a sick animal or person receives antibiotics, the chemical helps the immune system fight off the bacteria. The antibiotic resistant bacteria that happen to be present will not respond to the antibiotics, but will be taken down by the immune cells of the host. Working together, the antibiotics and a healthy immune system can fight off the infection and restore health to the host.
So what is the problem?
If the antibiotics are not taken as prescribed or when necessary, the antibiotic resistant bacteria may have a chance to outnumber the antibiotic-susceptible bacteria. For example, a doctor prescribes antibiotics for ten days. The patient starts taking the medicine, but feels better within four days and decides to stop the medication. This is a classic situation for antibiotic resistant bacteria to thrive. The antibiotics were taken long enough to kill off some of the antibiotic-susceptible bacteria, but not long enough to support the immune system while it handles the resistant invaders. By removing the antibiotic supports, the immune system may falter and a population with a high percentage of antibiotic resistant bacteria blooms in the host. The patient feels sick again, returns to the doctor, receives more antibiotics (or starts taking the remainder of the original pack), but now the balance between resistant and susceptible bacteria has been shifted and the medicine is unable to assist the immune system effectively. A different or stronger antibiotic will be required to fight the increased population of super bacteria which multiplied from an initial small percentage of infective organisms. Of course, these super bacteria can be transmitted to new hosts who will suffer the same difficulty in fighting off the resistant bacteria. The situation escalates and will be especially dangerous for weak hosts or hosts with an already-compromised immune system. In (human) hospitals, I have heard of this situation progressing with Staph infection (Staphylococcus aureus), which is notoriously infective and dangerous. Yikes.
The moral of the story is to always take or administer antibiotics exactly as prescribed by your doctor or veterinarian as preventative measures and to promote complete and timely recovery. Giving antibiotics for a viral infection is setting up the conditions for an antibiotic resistant bacteria nursery, because the immune system is already tackling a viral infection and any infective bacteria which may also be present will have its susceptible bacteria killed off, creating open season for resistant bacteria to multiply as the immune cells attempt to divide their efforts.
I love biology, by the way. :)
My vet has made a recommendation to aid Harley's condition.
Ideally, we would like to offer him an alfalfa-mix hay, but since I do not own my own farm and I am not (even slightly) in control of the hay we receive, that is not going to happen. Also, if Harley was eating alfalfa, his pasture mate (who is plenty round) would be eating alfalfa and that is frowned upon. My dentist had already mentioned alfalfa cubes or pellets, as he has thoroughbreds and supplements their diet with the pellets. He said that Harley's molars are very good and perfectly able to chew hay, but alfalfa delivers more protein for the quantity. The hay which my barn feeds is coarse and could not be described as "rich". While this might be fine for the majority of the horses, my vet feels that Harley would benefit from a higher quality option. Of course, he will still receive his normal long-stemmed hay ration, since pellets do not qualify as roughage and cannot contribute to gut mobilization. He also needs to burn hay to keep warm and mentally sound. I have seen horses who cannot have hay. They were not really happy and always looked at least a little frustrated, especially when the hay truck drove around and all they got was soaked cubes. Unfortunately, sometimes this is the only management option for very old or allergic/asthmatic horses, which was the case with the animals to which I am referring. Thankfully, Harley is perfectly capable of eating hay. Let's hope he stays that way until he is thirty and then we can switch to cubes.
I have read a lot about alfalfa. Alfalfa has gotten a bad rap in many circles, but seems to be perfectly fine for feet and temperament, although expensive. My barn owners are concerned that Harley will get hot on alfalfa. I have read that if a horse becomes hot on alfalfa, he is probably allergic. My vet was not concerned about allergies being a risk or hotness. Harley is not exactly climbing the walls, so if he did gain some pep, I would not be upset about that. After his body recovers from the virus, he will be redrawn for a full allergy panel, so we will know if Harley has allergies to hay, dust, mold, or anything else.
Do you have any thoughts on the effects of alfalfa on temperament?