Equine Science Update
Reports from the world of  equine research.
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Scientists have developed a test for the gene responsible for Foal Immunodeficiency Syndrome (FIS).

FIS is more often known as Fell Pony Syndrome after the breed most commonly affected. However, the disease is not confined to the Fell Pony, and has been reported in the Dales Pony as well.

Affected foals become ill when they are a few weeks old. Signs include loss of condition, diarrhoea, coughing and weight loss.  As the condition progresses, they develop anaemia, immune dysfunction, and wasting.

FIS is always fatal. Affected foals die or are euthanased, usually before reaching three months of age.  

Now researchers at Newmarket’s Animal Health Trust (AHT) and Liverpool University have developed a DNA-based test for the gene responsible for the disease.

The test will allow owners to identify the animals that carry the defective gene. They will then be able to plan their breeding program to prevent affected foals being born. (Affected foals can only be produced if both the mare and stallion carry the mutation.)

Project Leader Dr Swinburne of the Animal Health Trust said “ After ten years of research, this is an exciting and important discovery for breeders of Fell and Dales Ponies across the world. By identifying the mutation and developing a DNA test, breeders will be able to make informed decisions about which ponies to breed. This should prevent unnecessary suffering and, in time, eradicate this awful condition.”

Professor Carter said” The University of Liverpool’s investment in the latest genomic technologies has made this breakthrough possible“ said Professor Stuart Carter. “On a personal level, it is so gratifying that after years of working with distraught breeders and owners, we can now see our way to a future in which no more sick foals are produced. We can also ensure that his dreadful problem does not spread to other horse breeds.”

The test, which requires only a sample of hair from tail or mane, can also be used to identify affected foals. FIS is initially difficult to distinguish from other diseases for which treatment is worthwhile.  Once the diagnosis is confirmed, the foal does not have to endure further treatment, which will ultimately be unsuccessful.

The research was made possible by funding from the Horse Trust and support from the Fell Pony Society and the Dales Pony Society who supplied the DNA samples.

The Horse Trust’s Chief Executive Brigadier Paul Jepson said “We’re thrilled to have been able to support this exciting project. It was evident from the start that this project would bring significant benefits for equine health and welfare, ultimately leading to the prevention and elimination of a fatal disease.”

The test should be available in February 2010. Laura Fox-Clipsham, a PhD student whose work led to the breakthrough and development of the test, added, “We would urge any breeders of Fell or Dales Ponies to utilise the test once it is available. All they will need to do is send the AHT a sample of hair from the ponies for analysis. The information they will gain in return will arm them with the facts to avoid breeding foals with this devastating illness.”

For more information on the AHT’s equine genetics work see:

Written by Mark Andrews. Published online 22.12.09.
© Copyright Equine Science Update  2009
Fell Pony syndrome test
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