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Grazing animals are continuously exposed to tick bites. Consequently, one may expect that horses will become infected with the various pathogens carried by ticks including Borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato. Whether horses may develop clinical
disease due to this pathogen is controversially discussed. We were interested to learn about the infection of horses with Borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato within one season by studying the dynamics of the humoral immune response in paired blood samples. The majority of horses examined were Lipizzaner from the stud farm in Piber/Steiermark, and from the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. Smaller groups of animals of different breeds were from stud farms in Kärnten, Niederösterreich, Salzburg and Steiermark. Clinical status and medical history were obtained and blood was drawn at the beginning of the highest tick activity and nine months later in 1998. Immunoblot technique (Western blot) was used in order to determine the dynamics in the immune response patterns. As antigens served the genospecies Borrelia afzelii, Borrelia burgdorferi sensu stricto, Borrelia garinii, Borrelia lusitaniae, and Borrelia valaisiana. 309 horses (age median 7 years, range 1/12 to 33 years) were seen at the first round. 186 of these animals (60.2%; median age 6 years, range 4/12 to 33 years) were re-examined in the second round. All animals were in normal health condition during both rounds of examination and blood sampling. Analysis of the immunoblot patterns was based on in-house-, Pko-, Pka2-, Pbi-, and European Union Concerted Action on
Lyme Borreliosis (EUCALB) 2 & 3-criteria; analyses revealed a variety of positive results with different strains and criteria. Positive immunoblot results with 186 paired samples and B. afzelii as antigen, for example, ranged from 52 to about 91% in the first, and 53 to 93% in the second round. The age dependency analyses showed that the first infection with B. burgdorferi sensu lato occurs in the first year. Re-infection is characterised by appearance of additional bands. Continuously tick-exposed horses show a stable pattern of bands whilst in unexposed horses the number of bands decreases with age. In this study horses became repeatedly infected with B. burgdorferi sensu lato but, apparently, developed only rarely, if at all, clinical diseases. The infectious agent is predominantly B. afzelii. Antibodies to other borrelia genospecies are predominantly due to cross reactivity.