Standardbreds are saving lives. If your dream foal survives after receiving life saving plasma therapy you may thank a Standardbred. Plasma therapy is an effective way to supplement the immune response system and Standardbreds are the plasma donors of choice for many reasons.
And, if you ever get bitten by a snake in Australia and require antivenom treatment, you can also thank a Standardbred. A team of horses at Plasvacc provides the hyperimmune plasma that is used in all Australian hospitals to treat snake bite.
Plasvacc, a leading company based in Kalbar, manufactures and distributes high quality blood plasma products and they do so using hyperimmunised Standardbreds that have retired from racing.
Earlier this year, the Horses and People team were invited to visit the 200 acre property to learn about the collection process and meet the donors themselves, a total of 60 friendly and gentle off the track harness racehorses.
CEO Andrew Macarthur walked us through the facilities and shared a wealth of knowledge about plasma therapy, ongoing research and the important role these Standardbreds play by donating their blood in between quiet time spent in the paddock with their equine mates.
Standardbreds are well handled, very tractable, big, sound horses. They’ve been around people. As most of the Standardbred operations are family based, the horses are generally very calm, already used to being cross-tied and well mannered. They adapt easily to standing quietly during the collection procedure, which takes around four hours. If any of our donors are unhappy, they can cause injuries to themselves and to our staff, so we can’t have horses that don’t want to be here.
Where do the donors come from?
Our preferred model is to purchase Standardbreds directly from trainers when they retire from racing. In particular, we like to make an arrangement with trainers about what horses may be coming up for retirement in the near future. Once they join the herd, they stay with us for life. Most of the horses here are in their mid-teens or early twenties, and a few have been here since we started in 1996.
What is the selection process?
The first requirement we look for is that they are healthy, sound and have good temperaments. The horses need to have a sound conformation and good feet because we will keep them here for years.
As well as temperament and conformation, we take blood tests because, to be suitable, they must have the right blood groups and antibodies. We check the blood to see if they have been exposed to any viruses that we can’t accept for medical reasons.
Those who go through the initial selection process are then brought to the property where they start a quarantine of several months after which we collect them again and go through the final selection. If their blood antibodies and type are still okay, then they go into the herd. If not, they are returned to their owners.
How often do they donate and what happens between donations?
They are collected once a month and spend the rest of the time out together in our large irrigated pastures. They are never in yards. In the mornings, the horses walk calmly towards the facilities a bit like dairy cows, all in a row, by themselves. We select the three we want and bring them into the shed. When the procedure is over, they go back out with their mates. We like the horses to run together in two large groups. They all get along.
How is the plasma collected?
The three horses we select come into the shed and, once they are settled in the crush and enjoying their feed, they are catheterised and connected to the machines, which are the same the Red Cross blood bank use, but especially altered for our purpose. Our horses have to be happy and settled throughout the procedure. They are not sedated at all, but receive a local anaesthetic to make it more comfortable.
The actual collection process is exactly the same as the Red Cross blood bank. Once the machines start working, the blood goes through a centrifuge where the plasma, which contains the antibodies, is spun out. The red and white blood cells and the platelets are returned to the horse together with saline (fluid) to ensure the process does not affect their health and wellbeing. The product is then frozen and can be shipped to the customer.
Do you train the horses?
New horses go through a training period where they come in and get to stand next to another older, experienced horse during the donation procedure, so they get used to the facilities and the environment. If it looks like they may not adjust behaviourally, we would rather return them to their owners earlier, rather than later.
If there is a behaviour problem, sometimes it is with our staff’s skills and not the horses, so we get an outside trainer to come in and help. Our staff come from varied backgrounds and have different skill levels so, if we are experiencing any behaviour issues, we will organise refresher training courses to review their handling techniques.
Once the product is manufactured, what happens next?
Our company covers the whole process. From an initial idea, we do the research, develop and commercialise the product, do the marketing, sales and technical support. In Australia, we market primarily to veterinarians, although we have just started a new website called FoalsBestStart.com to bring awareness to owners who like to be well informed.
We target the vets because its a registered pharmaceutical product, but that doesn’t hold us from trying to educate the horse owners so they know the benefits of the product. Some studs only use plasma in their foals as an emergency, whereas other studs will use two bags on every foal. They consider it an investment.
What are the benefits of Plasvacc’s products?
Plasvacc plasma is guaranteed to be free of viral infection, from a universal plasma donor, tested free of blood cells, has a high and uniform gamma globulin concentration, and is tested for sterility. Our facility is regulated by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) and the New Zealand Food Safety Authority NZFSA.
We are committed to ensuring the health and wellbeing of our donor animals, and all our activities are approved and monitored by an independent animal ethics committee.
As we leave the Plasvacc property, we are greeted by a large group of horses grazing in the paddock near the roadside. Living in a large social group, the Plasvacc donors are relaxed and allowed freedom to be with other horses in a spacious environment. With a professional and dedicated team to care for them, we were pleased to learn about the incredible ways that Standardbreds are giving to other horses in their lives after racing.
Did you know?
In contrast with people’s four major blood types (A, B, AB and O), horses have eight major blood types (A, C, D, K, P, Q, U and T) that then combine with more than 30 other factors in different ways, creating a 1 in 400,000 chance of finding a 100% perfect match! The plasma of universal donors, however, is compatible with all equine blood types. This is why universal blood donors are so highly sought after.
Did you know?
If you ever get bitten by a snake in Australia and require antivenom you can thank a Standardbred. A team of horses at Plasvacc provides the hyperimmune plasma that is used in all Australian hospitals to treat snake bite.
Did you know?
Newborn foals have a narrow 12 to 24 hour window to obtain vital levels of antibodies via the colostrum. Plasma is widely administered to horses and foals for a variety of reasons, such as a critical illness, failure of passive transfer in foals, diarrhoea, joint and umbilical infections, and to protect against rattles (Rhodococcus equi), one of the major causes of pneumonia in foals. It can also be administered to improve a foal’s IgG.