Equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM) is a very serious disease that can cause life-long debilitating neurological defects, and can be fatal if left untreated. EPM is one of the most common causes of neurologic diseases in horses. It is most common in areas where opossums reside, as they are responsible for carrying the EPM-causing parasite, S. neurona. With proper diagnosis and aggressive treatment, most horses can recover from the disease. Signs of neurologic disease always require emergency veterinary attention.
Several horses can become exposed to the parasite and combat the infection before clinical disease develops. Horses that undergo a stressful event following infection are more likely to succumb to clinical disease. Symptoms can either be sudden, or more insidious in onset. Symptoms can also vary depending on the area of central nervous system damage. For example, damage to the spinal cord may result in ataxia and gait abnormalities, whereas brain involvement may present as lethargy, facial paralysis, and seizures.
The cause of EPM is the protozoan parasite Sarcocystis neurona. Less commonly, the protozoan parasite Neospora hughesi can also result in a similar disease. Horses become infected with the parasite by ingesting food or water contaminated with sporocysts (egg-like infective stage) that are shed in opossum feces. Once ingested, the parasite migrates through the body and causes damage to the central nervous system, which results in the observable symptoms.
Other animals (cats, raccoons, skunks) can also carry the infectious sporocysts in their feces.
There is no specific diagnostic test available for EPM in live horses; the only definitive test for EPM is by testing nervous tissues post-mortem. Horses that present with neurological disease undergo a full physical and neurologic examination. Additional testing to support the diagnosis includes:
Treatment includes the use of antiprotozoal drugs, as well as other supportive medications (anti-inflammatories and antioxidants such as vitamin E) to alleviate symptoms. Treatment is often lengthy and costly, and approximately 10-20% of horses can relapse. Euthanasia may be recommended for horses that quickly deteriorate or do not respond to treatment.
Some horses can be infected with the organism for months to years before symptoms are visible and a diagnosis is made. Following diagnosis, treatment can last between 1-6 months depending on the medications used and response to treatment.
The prognosis with treatment ultimately depends on the length of infection prior to treatment, the severity of symptoms, and the location of the central nervous system affected. Prompt treatment is key for the best prognosis. Most horses recover with aggressive treatment, although lasting neurological deficits following treatment and relapse are still possible in a small percentage of horses.
Broadly, EPM can be prevented by keeping animals out of food and water storage. Examples of these preventative measures include:
Maintaining optimal health in horses is also key as stressed horses are more likely to become symptomatic following exposure to S. neurona. Ways to maximize health include:
A vaccine against S. neurona is available, although its efficacy is unknown. Currently, other preventative measures are more strongly encouraged over vaccination.
EPM is not contagious between horses.
EPM is uncommon, but it is the most common cause for neurologic disease in horses.