Investigate Narcolepsy in Icelandic Horses

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.

Bacterial Infection Brucella Canis Suspected in Dogs in Iceland

The Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) has reason to suspect that a bacterial disease called Brucella canis has been found in dogs in Iceland. RÚV reports that Bruncella canis can—in very rare instances—be transmitted from dogs to humans, with young children, pregnant, and immunocompromised people at the greatest risk of serious infection. This is the first time that Brucella canis has been detected in Iceland.

MAST veterinarian Vigdís Tryggvadóttir was quick to clarify that as yet, it is not certain that Bruncella canis actually is in Iceland, although there is a very high likeliness of this. “We have a strong suspicion, but it’s still only a suspicion,” she said. “We’ve sent samples abroad for confirmation, and hopefully, it won’t be [Brucella canis]. But [results] could take up to two weeks.”

In the meantime, MAST has enacted some protocols to curb the spread of infection. Relevant parties have been told to quarantine animals suspected of being infected with Brucella canis and a mating ban has been instated where appropriate. The agency is also collecting samples and information to trace possible spread and is urging dog breeders to observe the strictest level of infection prevention while assisting with whelping. Breeders are also encouraged to contact their veterinarian if a dog miscarries late in gestation or gives birth to stillborn puppies or puppies that die shortly after birth.

Dog breeders and vets at highest risk of exposure, minimal risk for others

Brucella canis is a zoonotic bacterial disease, which means it can be passed from animals to people. In a recent announcement, MAST said its most prominent symptoms in female dogs are miscarriages late in gestation, as well as puppies that are stillborn or die soon after birth; for male dogs, swollen testicles. The most common mode of transmission between dogs is mating.

It is rare for people to become infected with Brucella canis, but the biggest risk of infection is via fluids and tissue when helping an infected dog give birth. This puts dog breeders and veterinarians at the highest risk of infection, says Vigdís, while nearly everyone else has almost no risk of exposure.

In the very unlikely case of infection, symptoms of Brucella canis within people include fever, chills, malaise, loss of appetite, bone and/or muscle pain, and swollen lymph nodes. Symptoms may appear within several days or as much as a month after infection. The disease is not generally transmittable between people.

First time suspected in Iceland

This is the first time that Brucella canis has been suspected of being in Iceland, but it is a very common disease in nearby nations. “Brucella canis is endemic in many countries in Europe and also Asia and further afield,” said Vigdís. “It’s never been diagnosed here and it’s rare in some other European countries. We’ve never had it here and want, of course, to keep it outside our borders.”

Vigdís concluded by saying that even if a case of Brucella canis is confirmed in Iceland, that doesn’t mean an epidemic is breaking out.

Sheep With Rare Genotype Could Eradicate Scrapie

Sheep that carry special genes could hold they key to eradicating the fatal disease scrapie from Iceland, RÚV reports. The ewes Tignarleg, located on a farm in Northwest Iceland, and Móbotna, on a farm in the northeast, both carry a rare gene that protects them against the fatal, degenerative disease. So far, four ewes that carry the gene have been found in the Icelandic sheep stock, but no rams. The findings are part of an international study that is providing hope that scrapie could be eradicated from Iceland within the next decade.

The Icelandic Agricultural Advisory Centre is taking part in the study alongside experts from Germany, England, and Italy. Guðfinna Harpa Árnadóttir, chairperson of the National Association of Sheep Farmers and a farmer herself, says that the genotype, known as T137, has been found to protect sheep against scrapie in three large Italian studies. “So we have hopes that the same applies to the scrapie that has been plaguing us here in Iceland. But it is yet to be confirmed by further research. But it’s very exciting, at the least, to find that genotype,” Guðfinna stated. 

Read More: Dream of a Scrapie-Free Iceland May Become a Reality

Móbotna, who belongs to Guðfinna, not only carries the rare genotype, but also sports rare colouring and has four horns. Guðfinna says researchers are seeking out sheep with unusual characteristics, as it might indicate they are more likely to carry rare genes. “Hopefully we’ll find more exciting animals that can help us in this fight against scrapie. Of course, in continuation, a breeding plan will be made, about how we plan to cultivate [the genotype] further.”

Scrapie is believed to have arrived in Iceland via an English ram that was transported to Skagafjörður fjord in 1878. It is a fatal, degenerative disease with no treatment or cure and it is highly contagious (between sheep). The prion that causes it can persist in soil and flocks for decades. Scrapie is not transmissible to humans.