Friday, August 22, 2014

Flu Season....of a Different Kind

By: Peggy L Henderson

Fall is quickly approaching, the kids are going back to school, and we all know what that means – flu season. But people aren’t the only ones who suffer from influenza. Our dogs, cats, and horses can get the flu, as well.
Equine Influenza outbreaks these days can have economic impacts on the racing and showing industry. But what about in the nineteenth century? Everything was dependent on horse power back then, just as we depend on gasoline today. An outbreak could have devastating consequences. 
treating flu stricken horses 
In 1872, an outbreak of equine influenza crippled the US economy.  It came to be known as the Great Epizootic of 1872. The Long Riders’ Guild Academy, the historical organization that researched the outbreak, has said that "The Great Epizootic was the worst equestrian catastrophe in the history of the United States - and perhaps the world."
When horses became unable to perform their duties in the eastern cities, the economy came to a grinding halt. In fact, the influenza outbreak that year is said to have been a major contributor to the economic crash in 1873.
workers pulling their own wagons
The first cases of the disease were reported in Toronto Canada, and within three days spread to New York. It took less than three days for the street car horses to become infected and unable to perform their jobs. Three weeks later, the New York Times reported that all of the cities public stables had been infected, and more than 95% of the horse population had been rendered useless by its owners. "It is not uncommon along the streets of the city to see horses dragging along with drooping heads and at intervals coughing violently."
 On October 30, 1872, a complete suspension of travel had been noted in New York. Massive backups at ports and with freighting companies occurred, because horses could no longer pull the loads from the docks. They couldn’t pull the coal cars that supplied fuel to the railroads.
Men were forced to pull wagons by hand. Trains and ships full of cargo stood unloaded. Perishable food spoiled.
"Coal cannot be hauled from the mines to run locomotives, farmers cannot market their produce, boats cannot reach their destination on the canals ..."
Fire vehicle without horses
One of the greatest casualties that was directly associated to the equine flu outbreak occurred in the city of Boston. Fire engines back then were drawn by horses, and with the animals sick, could no longer respond to fires. A fire broke out in the city on November 9th, and the firemen were required to pull their own equipment, severely impeding their firefighting abilities. The fire raged and became one of the worst disasters in the city’s history. It killed 13 people, destroyed 776 buildings, and cost over $75 million.
Out west, even the US cavalry was  affected. The flu virus had spread south to Mexico and Cuba, and also to the Pacific coast. The soldiers fought their Indian campaign against the Apache on foot. The Apaches had to do the same, as their animals became infected as well.
The vast majority of affected horses that survived (the mortality rate was said to be 10%) were fully healthy again the next year, but the economic impact of the outbreak was felt by major cities for years to come. 

In my time travel romance, Ain't No Angel, this epidemic plays an important role in the story, as the influenza outbreak reached my hero's  Montana Ranch.

Excerpt from Ain't No Angel  (Second Chances Time Travel Romance Series, Book 2)

“This colt has the flu, like I said. Any idiot can see that.” She glared toward Gabe. Tyler no longer held back his smile. His little wife was displaying her feisty side, and she wasn’t backing down. His insides warmed. She defended the horses as a mother would defend a child.
“Flu? What the hell is that? I ain’t never heard of it,” Gabe sniggered.
“You’ve seen this before?” Tyler stepped closer to her. Laney met his stare. She looked ready to do battle with him.
“Yes, and it’s very contagious. I wouldn’t be surprised if more of your horses don’t catch it.”
“What is flu?” Tyler asked, wanting to understand her.
Laney’s forehead wrinkled, a dumbfounded expression on her face. “You know . . . the flu . . . equine influenza. Just like people can get the flu, so do horses.”
“The grippe?” Gabe laughed from outside the stall.  “You’re saying these horses have the grippe?”
Laney glared back at him. “I don’t know what that is, but where I come from, we call it influenza . . . flu for short, and it’s definitely not treated by blistering. Why would you want to make these horses suffer even more than they already are? That’s just the most archaic, stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of.”
“How do you treat it?” Tyler asked quickly. The dead colt at Ian’s place popped into his mind again. If his and Ian’s horses suffered from an influenza outbreak, it could have devastating consequences, assuming it was as deadly as it was in people. He’d never heard of the illness in horses, and he was only vaguely familiar with the symptoms of the grippe in people. A neighboring community had suffered an outbreak several years ago, and many of the townsfolk had died.
  “There was a colt at Ian’s place last week that had the same symptoms before it died,” he said slowly. “He’s lost several foals since then.” Tyler frowned. Where had this sick animal come from? Anger surged in him. There would be hell to pay when he found the owner of that dead colt.
“Then I suggest you tell Ian that he’d better keep an eye out for his horses. If any of them drink the same water, or eat from the same feed barrel, they’ll be exposed,” Laney said firmly.
Tyler recalled watering the horse he rode to Ian’s place at the trough in Ian’s yard. Was that how he had brought the illness back to his ranch? He cursed under his breath. The saddle horse wasn’t infected, as near as he could tell. He appeared well when he rode him the day before. He’d ridden Charlie to Ian’s ranch this morning. Damn.
“If you’ve seen this before, how is it treated?” Tyler’s admiration for his wife grew. Where had she learned so much about horses? The women he knew, even the rancher’s wives, simply didn’t pay that much attention to what was always deemed as men’s business.
Laney glanced from him to the wranglers standing outside the stall. “Well, you have to keep the sick horses away from the healthy ones. Don’t share feed or water buckets, bridles, anything. Everything you touch needs to be disinfected. There’s really no treatment. It has to run its course.” She stopped to gape at him. “Where I’m from, it would have been easier to prevent with . . .” She shook her head and her eyes widened as if she’d said too much.
Prevent with what? Tyler didn’t have a chance to ask.
 “Keep them warm and comfortable, and hope for the best. Try and get them to drink and eat, even if you have to force water into them. The best thing to do is make sure it doesn’t spread.” She turned her head to the gray colt. “I’m worried he might have pneumonia, with all that nasal discharge. We’ll have to watch him closely.”
“I still say draw the diseased serum out of him. Blistering is a sure-fire way to rid horses of their ailments,” Gabe said.
Tyler didn’t know what to think. His foreman was a knowledgeable horseman, and he himself would have opted for the treatment Gabe suggested. Laney’s firm conviction in what she said gave him pause even if some of her unfamiliar words were downright perplexing. How she knew all of these things was a question he’d ask later.
“Gabe, I’m gonna ride out to Ian’s place first thing in the morning, and tell him to inspect all his horses, and to separate the sick ones. I want you to do a thorough inspection of our stock. Any horse that so much as sneezes gets separated from the others. For now, hold off on the pine tar.”
“I’ll do whatever you think will get these horses well again, Ty,” Gabe said slowly. His eyes lingered on Laney, his expression unreadable, then he turned to Eddie and Sammy.
“You heard the boss. Let’s go check out the other horses before it gets too dark. Any sick ones, we’ll separate into the south pen.” He nodded toward Tyler, then strode from the barn, the other two wranglers on his heels.
Tyler turned toward Laney. She twisted the rope in her hand into a tight knot. She offered a soft smile, but the worry remained in her eyes. He stepped closer.
“You said this could have been prevented. How?” He reached for her hand. Her eyes widened in panic.
“I . . . I didn’t mean totally prevented. I meant the spread could have been prevented.” Her eyes darted to the colt in an obvious attempt to break eye contact.
There was something she wasn’t saying. What did she know that she didn’t want to divulge? Tyler shrugged it off for now. It was too late for prevention, anyhow.
“I’ve had the strangest feeling that there’s more to you than what you’re letting on. One of these days I’m going to figure it out, but until I do, I want you to know I’m glad that you’re here, Laney,” he said quietly, sincerely. If only her passion for the animals would extend toward him as well. 

Peggy L Henderson is a laboratory technologist by night, and best-selling western historical and time travel romance author of the Yellowstone Romance Series, Second Chances Time Travel Romance Series, and Teton Romance Trilogy. When she’s not writing about Yellowstone, the Tetons, or the old west, she’s out hiking the trails, spending time with her family and pets, or catching up on much-needed sleep. She is happily married to her high school sweetheart. Along with her husband and two sons, she makes her home in Southern California.


  1. Great post, Peggy. I had no idea horses suffered the flu as did humans. Poor animals! Thanks for enlightening us.

  2. Who knew animals suffer as well as humans? Very informative article. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Yes, horses, dogs, cats, etc, all get the flu. Luckily, each virus is species-specific, but I swear, whenever I or someone in my family has the flu, one of my cat ends up sick, too.
    Nowadays, it's easy to prevent (mostly) in horses with vaccinating them, but no vaccine is 100% effective.

  4. I love hearing about obscure history. It's amazing that this isn't more talked about! If put in modern-day perspective, it would be like a computer virus that shut down all air travel...can you imagine what a mess that would cause? I'm so glad advances in medicine have made this easier to treat.


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