New Brunswick

One tick pony: Mt. A study focuses on Lyme disease in horses

A new study being conducted at Mount Allison University aims to raise awareness of Lyme disease in horses in New Brunswick.

'It's critically important to know the prevalence of it,' horse owner says

Emma Bush is spearheading a study at Mount Allison University about Lyme disease and horses. (Courtesy of Emma Bush)

A new study being conducted at Mount Allison University aims to shed light on Lyme disease in horses in New Brunswick.

Emma Bush, a fourth-year biology student, is spearheading the project under the supervision of Dr. Vett Lloyd, a biologist and leader in Canadian tick and Lyme research.

Looking for horses to test

"We're really interested in the prevalence of Lyme disease in the province, in horses," Bush said.

"No one has looked at that before and so we don't really have any information from New Brunswick to be looking at. This is all new for both myself and Dr.Lloyd."

Bush said she's looking to collaborate with anyone who has horses, especially if their horse spends time in areas with high grass, trees or trails, as they pose higher risks for tick bites.

Symptoms of Lyme disease, which is spread through ticks, include fever, headache, fatigue and a bullseye rash. (Associated Press/Victoria Arocho)

"We want owners to be aware and searching for ticks on their horses," she said. "First of all, it's important for horse health and second of all, because we want to study the ticks found on the horses to see if they have the borrelia bacteria that spread Lyme disease."

Bush wants to study symptoms after a horse is bitten by a tick.

'He just wasn't swooshing his tail like the others at the flies and I thought, "that's odd.'"- Lisa Boudreau

She also wants to review blood samples.

Current testing methods for Lyme disease in horses are not appropriate because they're based off the canine lyme disease test.

"There are two main [tests], and we want to figure out which one is best," she said

According to Bush, Lloyd was looking to research horses and Lyme disease, but no one before her had a strong connection with horses.

Around horses since childhood

Bush has been involved in the horse community since she was nine years old and has competed since the age of 12.

"I get to combine my two worlds," she said. "I get to combine my academic and my horse world… I was sold immediately," Bush said.

"I have heard of several horses that have had Lyme disease."

Horse owners across the province have already begun contacting Bush about the study.

Lisa Boudreau, a hobby farm horse breeder outside Hampton, is one of them. She was diagnosed with Lyme disease in 2009 after a bite from a tick.

Lisa Boudreau and her horse, Master, have both had Lyme disease. (Courtesy of Lisa Boudreau)

"Two years after I was bit, I found a tick between Master's jowls," she said. She think he might have picked them along a bush-wooded fence.

She initially wasn't concerned about the ticks until a year later on Victoria Day weekend when she noticed his behaviour changed.

"He just wasn't swooshing his tail like the others at the flies and I thought, 'that's odd,'" she said. "And then I noticed he was balling up his food and spitting it out like an old horse with no teeth would do. It turns out he was having difficulty swallowing it."

Became weaker over time

Over time he became weaker, the swallowing became worse and he suffered from twitching muscles.

After an arduous testing process, Master was finally diagnosed with Lyme disease.

He took antibiotics, and though he gets the odd spurt of energy, Boudreau said he never fully recovered.

"Even till this day, he's not the first one to come for treats and he kind of hangs back," she said.

According to Bush, it's rare for horses to show symptoms of Lyme disease. Even owners might not know their horse is infected.

Early stages

For Bush, horses in the province need to start being tested.

"People shouldn't be terrified, but they should be aware that this is a concern in the province and that they should be alert to tick checks on their horses," she said.

The study is still the preliminary stages and field work has yet to be conducted. For the moment, it's about raising awareness, Bush said.

And Boudreau is eager to help.

"It's critically important to know the prevalence of it," she said.