Strangles in horses and pigeon fever in horses are both serious, but neither are typically life threatening equine illnesses. Luckily, both can be prevented.

Having horses is not just a pastime or hobby, it is a way of life that instills a love and passion unique to the equine world. When a horse gets sick, it can be very scary for the owner. Strangles in horses sounds terrifying, but it does not have to be a devastating disease and is quite curable. And while pigeon fever in horses seems to be on the rise, it is also an easily diagnosable and treatable disease. Let’s review these two ailments and learn the techniques that can help to control or prevent the disease.

What are the Symptoms of Pigeon Fever in Horses?

The primary symptom of pigeon fever in horses, also known as Dryland Distemper, is a swelling in the chest or abdomen due to abscesses caused by Corynebacterium pseudotuberculosis bacteria. Contrary to what the name may imply, pigeons are not a contributing factor to pigeon fever in horses, but rather the name comes from the swelling that occurs, giving the horse a pigeon-breast appearance. Other symptoms that may be observed include:

  • Mild fever
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Colic
  • Coughing

How is Pigeon Fever Spread?

Pigeon fever bacteria live in dry soil and manure, and thrives in hot, dry weather and is why most cases are found in the Western United States. Once considered a “California disease,” it has now been found in more than 25 states, including the panhandle of Florida and even Hawaii. Flies contribute greatly to the spread of pigeon fever in horses through insect bites and contamination of open sores. Controlling the fly population on your farm can help considerably in the prevention of pigeon fever. Pigeon fever can also be spread from horse to horse through contact of infected wounds or mucous membranes.

What is the Incubation Period for Pigeon Fever in Horses?

The incubation period of pigeon fever from first contact to onset of symptoms is 3-4 weeks on average.

Is There a Vaccine for Pigeon Fever in Horses?

At this time, there is not a vaccine for pigeon fever. Big animal doctors and other researchers suggest that the best prevention is a well-maintained and clean stable and farm, and rigid insect control.

What are the First Signs of Strangles in Horses?

Strangles is another form of distemper in horses, this one caused by Streptococcus equi equi and it affects the upper respiratory tract of the horse. The disease can cause lung congestion with difficulty swallowing or breathing, therefore “strangling” the horse. Strangles in horses is a highly contagious disease that can incubate within 3-14 days of exposure. The first sign of strangles is fever, typically over 101.5 degrees for horses. Other distinguishing symptoms of strangles include yellow nasal discharge and enlarged lymph nodes below the lower jaw.

How is Strangles in Horses Treated?

Treatment of strangles in horses is not daunting, it just takes a little extra time and effort. The very first thing you want to do is separate the infected horse from the rest of the herd and isolate him. (You should really have the rest of the herd tested right away as well.) Keep the infected horse in an area that is warm, dry, and as dust-free as possible. When you are caring for a horse with strangles, you should have one person provide care and that person should also stay away from any other horses. To prevent further spread of the illness, the caretaker should wear protective clothing and boots that stay at the quarantine site. If the caretaker will be working with other horses after caring for the infected horse, he or she should disinfect, shower, and change clothes. Warm compresses can help to ease the discomfort of swollen lymph nodes, and NSAID (Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug) can be administered to ease inflammation and reduce fever. Antibiotic treatment of strangles in horses is still being debated. Letting the illness run its course can help the animal build up an immunity. Also, some veterinarians believe that antibiotics can actually slow the expulsion of the respiratory abscesses, prolonging the illness.

Can Horses Die from Strangles?

As with any biological organism, a horse can die from strangles, particularly if it goes untreated or if the animal has a compromised immune system. However, most of the time death is due to a secondary infection like pneumonia.

How Long Does It Take for Strangles to Go Away?

Strangles will go away in about 3-4 weeks, depending on the severity of the illness and health of the horse.

Prevention Instead of Cure

The key to keeping your horse healthy and happy is keen observation and rigid care of all living areas, trailers, and equipment. An extra hour of cleaning here and there will help to ensure that your equestrian beauty is with you for years to come.


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