Emergency diseases in horses

Page last updated: Tuesday, 1 March 2022 - 10:49am

Please note: This content may be out of date and is currently under review.

Hendra virus

Hendra virus is a disease carried by flying foxes (fruit bats) in Australia, Papua New Guinea and surrounding islands. While the virus does not visibly harm the flying foxes, it can occasionally spread from flying foxes to horses and from infected horses to people.

Hendra virus was first diagnosed in Australia in 1994. To date, over 100 horses have been infected with Hendra virus and have died or been euthanased. Seven people have been infected with Hendra virus, and four of them have died. All of these cases have been in either Queensland or northern New South Wales. No horses or people in WA have been diagnosed with Hendra virus infection.

Safety precautions

Hendra virus can be fatal in humans. Report suspicious cases and ensure you use appropriate personal protective equipment if you have to handle suspect horses. An effective vaccine for Hendra virus is available and a decision to use the vaccine should be made in consultation with your veterinarian.

Human infection is thought to occur through contact with body fluids, including the mucous secretions of infected horses. Persons in close contact with horses that have Hendra virus-like signs should wear protective face masks, goggles and gloves while taking care with personal disinfection.

Signs of Hendra virus

Hendra virus can cause a broad range of clinical signs in horses, and should be considered whenever horses have had exposure to fruit bats (flying foxes) or to horses from areas known to have had cases of Hendra virus, and suffer acute onset fever and rapid progression to death associated with respiratory or neurological signs.

These include:

  • rapid onset illness
  • increased body temperature (above 38.5°C) and heart rate
  • dullness
  • rapid deterioration
  • respiratory distress, laboured breathing, frothy and/or blood-stained nasal discharge
  • neurological (nervous system) signs such as wobbly gait, lack of coordination.

Other respiratory signs include:

  • respiratory distress — increased respiratory rates
  • terminal nasal discharge — can be initially clear progressing to stable white froth and/or stable blood-stained froth
  • terminal weakness, loss of control of muscle movement and collapse.

Other neurological signs include:

  • ‘wobbly gait', progressing to loss of control of muscle movement
  • apparent colic signs
  • altered consciousness — apparent loss of vision in one or both eyes, aimless walking in a dazed state
  • head tilting, circling
  • muscle twitching
  • urinary incontinence
  • lying down with an inability to get up.

For more information about Hendra virus, see the DPIRD Hendra virus webpage.

Contact information

Sue Skirrow
+61 (0)8 9892 8490