Equine flu kills over a dozen wild burros in Inland Empire

As people continue to battle COVID-19, herds of wild donkeys across the Inland Empire are facing their own outbreak of deadly equine flu that has killed more than a dozen donkeys since June.

The donkeys, which roam about 30 to 40 square miles in the mountains and hills east of Riverside and south of San Bernardino, showed sick about a month ago, said Chad Cheatham, vice president of the nonprofit DonkeyLand Conservancy in Colton.

While serving as a sanctuary for injured donkeys, DonkeyLand has also responded to reports of sick donkeys and taken them to equine veterinarians for treatment.

However, the diseases were often too severe for veterinarians to intervene.

“Several herds in different jurisdictions have dropped dead without time to rescue them,” the shelter wrote on Facebook last week. “Her symptoms were all the same, from foaming or blistering from the mouth, runny noses, coughing, or severe symptoms of severe shortness of breath.”

By the time the donkeys are transported for treatment, it is often too late.

“They actually came in pretty sick… almost at the end,” said equine veterinarian Dr. Paul Wan of SoCal Equine Hospital in Norco, where DonkeyLand takes in many of its sick and injured donkeys.

“They just breathed so hard and were really easy to catch,” Wan said. “Unfortunately, many of them just died as soon as they got to the hospital – I would say within 24 hours.”

About 17 donkeys have died as of Thursday, Wan said. Several donkeys were sent to government laboratories for autopsy.

DonkeyLand tried to rescue a two-week-old donkey that was found sick and took her to a vet, DonkeyLand founder and vice president Amber-LeVonne Cheatham said. But the foal died in the vet’s arms.

This isn’t the first time herds of wild donkeys have faced an equine flu outbreak — in the fall of 2020, an outbreak killed about 40 donkeys — but the current outbreak has caught DonkeyLand operators off guard.

Equine flu typically doesn’t spread until the cooler months, and an outbreak isn’t expected every year, Chad Cheatham said. That eruption in early summer came as a surprise, he said.

And in the 2020 outbreak, veterinarians were able to treat many of the donkeys showing symptoms.

Wan said donkeys coming into contact with domesticated horses, which are often vaccinated, may have triggered the outbreak. Equine flu cannot be transmitted from donkeys to humans.

The wild donkeys are unvaccinated and lack immunity to the virus, Wan said.

In addition, Amber-LeVonne Cheatham is concerned about the water that area residents have given to the donkeys.

The water is often neglected and not replaced with fresh water, Cheatham said.

With the equine influenza virus spreading, animal rescuers and veterinarians have a plan similar to what is being done to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What we’re trying to do is … create a kind of herd immunity with vaccine,” Wan said. “Hopefully we can vaccinate around 200 and it will probably stop the outbreak.”

The same plan was successful in 2020.

“2020 was pretty tough and then we vaccinated about 200,” Wan said. “Once we got the vaccines done within a week or two, I think we only saw one or two more [cases] after this time.”

Wan and DonkeyLand advised people in the area to report sick donkeys to the local animal service. Equine flu kills over a dozen wild burros in Inland Empire

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