Volume 47, Issue 3 p. 267-274
Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation: Review Article

The development of equine immunity: Current knowledge on immunology in the young horse

G. A. Perkins

Corresponding Author

G. A. Perkins

Department of Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA

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B. Wagner

B. Wagner

Department of Population Medicine and Diagnostic Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA

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First published: 18 November 2014
Citations: 64


The development of equine immunity from the fetus to adulthood is complex. The foal's immune response and the immune mechanisms that they are equipped with, along with changes over the first months of life until the immune system becomes adult-like, are only partially understood. While several innate immune responses seem to be fully functional from birth, the onset of adaptive immune response is delayed. For some adaptive immune parameters, such as immunoglobin (Ig)G1, IgG3, IgG5 and IgA antibodies, the immune response starts before or at birth and matures within 3 months of life. Other antibody responses, such as IgG4, IgG7 and IgE production, slowly develop within the first year of life until they reach adult levels. Similar differences have been observed for adaptive T cell responses. Interferon-gamma (IFN-γ) production by T helper 1 (Th1)-cells and cytotoxic T cells starts shortly after birth with low level production that gradually increases during the first year of life. In contrast, interleukin-4 (IL-4) produced by Th2-cells is almost undetectable in the first 3 months of life. These findings offer some explanation for the increased susceptibility of foals to certain pathogens such as Rhodococcus equi. The delay in Th-cell development and in particular Th2 immunity during the first months of life also provides an explanation for the reduced responsiveness of young horses to most traditional vaccines. In summary, all immune components of adult horses seem to exist in foals but the orchestrating and regulation of the immune response in immature horses is strikingly different. Young foals are fully competent and can perform certain immune responses but many mechanisms have yet to mature. Additional work is needed to improve our understanding of immunity and immune regulation in young horses, to identify the preferred immune pathways that they are using and ultimately provide new preventive strategies to protect against infectious disease.