Invited review: The role of caterpillars in mare reproductive loss syndrome: A model for environmental causes of abortion

K. J. McDowell, B. A. Webb, N. M. Williams, J. M. Donahue, K. E. Newman, M. D. Lindemann, D. W. Horohov

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


A new abortigenic disease, now known as mare reproductive loss syndrome (MRLS), significantly affected the horse industry in the Ohio River Valley of the United States in late April and early May of 2001 and 2002. In 2001, approximately 25% of all pregnant mares aborted within several weeks (over 3,000 mares lost pregnancies), and abortion rates exceeded 60% on some farms. Mare reproductive loss syndrome struck hard and without warning, it was caused by something in the environment, it was not transmitted between animals, and it was not associated with any known abortigenic agent or disease. These experiments demonstrated that horses will inadvertently consume Eastern tent caterpillars (ETC) when the insects are present in the pasture or other feedstuffs, and MRLStype abortions were induced in experimental animals (mares and pigs) by mixing ETC with the feed of the animals. Eastern tent caterpillars are hirsute (hairy) caterpillars, and the only part of the caterpillar that caused MRLS abortions was the cuticle. The experiments revealed that the setae (hairs) embed into the submucosa of the alimentary tract creating microgranulomatous lesions. It is hypothesized that the alimentary tract lesions allow bacteria from the alimentary tract of the mare, principally streptococci, actinobacilli, and to a lesser extent enterococci, to invade the circulatory system of the mare. The bacteria then establish infections in tissues where the immune surveillance of the mare is reduced, such as the fetus and placenta. Fetal and placental fluid bacterial infections lead to fetal death and abortion characteristic of MRLS. Inadvertent ingestion of ETC by pregnant mares causes MRLS. Currently the only known means to prevent MRLS is to avoid exposure of horses, particularly pregnant mares, to ETC and probably most hirsute caterpillars.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1379-1387
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Animal Science
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2010


  • Abortion
  • Caterpillar
  • Equine
  • Fetus
  • Mare reproductive loss syndrome
  • Reproduction

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Medicine


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