Investigate Narcolepsy in Icelandic Horses Skip to content

Investigate Narcolepsy in Icelandic Horses

By Yelena

Photo: Dagmar Trodler.

A working group in Iceland is investigating narcolepsy in Icelandic horses, RÚV reports. By gathering data and samples, the group hopes to develop a test to identify carriers. Their ultimate goal is to breed the disease out of the Icelandic horse breed.

Narcolepsy among horses is a disorder of the nervous system. It is a hereditary disease and can occur in the offspring of two genetic carriers. The symptoms are apparent early on in foals. “It manifests in the individual sort of staggering about,” explains Sonja Líndal, a veterinarian and horse breeder who is a member of the newly-established working group. “It basically falls asleep, hangs its head and becomes unsteady on its feet. We usually see it in foals right next to their mother. They usually stop, it’s sort of sudden, they fall asleep and then they run off as if they’re normal.”

Foals with symptoms are put down

Sonja underlines that the disorder neither causes the horses to suffer nor does it impact their development. However, it excludes them from typical use and activity. “It’s just difficult to find a role for them because you don’t want to use them in breeding and there are few people who will rely on them for riding so it is first and foremost a financial loss for the breeder.” She adds that foals who show symptoms of the disorder are usually put down.

Disorder possibly on the rise

In Iceland, farmers are not required to report horses with the disorder, which means there are no clear figures on how many horses are born with it. However, thousands of foals with the disease are reported each year, according to RÚV. For reference, Iceland’s entire horse population is around 80,000.

There is rising awareness around narcolepsy in Icelandic horses, and it may also be on the rise, particularly in the population that is actively bred for competition and genetic improvement, according to Sonja. That subset has less genetic diversity and is more interrelated.

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