I heard from a friend who I haven’t seen for a while that there has been a few cases of strangles in the area.
For those of you who don’t know what strangles is, it’s a respiratory disease caused by the bacteria Streptococcus equi, that is highly contagious.
Strangles can be fatal, but it’s primary cause for concern is the speed at which it spreads around a yard or area, particularly in enclosed stable settings.
Symptoms of strangles include fever, nasal discharge and depression initially, with the horse losing their appetite. Typically, the temperature rises to 41°C. After a few days lymph nodes around the throat swell, forming abscesses. The horse can have difficulty breathing and swallowing (hence the name ‘strangles’). A nasal discharge is at first clear and then becomes purulent after the abscesses have ruptured in the nasal passages. Sometimes the vet surgically opens the abscesses to help breathing, but at a risk of further infection. Ruptured abscesses shed highly infective pus into the environment, which can infect other horses.
Strangles is usually diagnosed quite easily by the fever, depression, loss of appetite, nasal discharge, and swollen lymph nodes. Swabs or blood tests are then taken to confirm the presence of Streptococcus equi. Once a diagnosis has been confirmed the yard is isolated until the outbreak ends – this is usually three weeks after a complete set of clear swabs as the bacteria can harbour in the guttural pouch and the symptoms not appear for up to two weeks. In the cases I was told about it is thought that the ponies have had dormant bacteria in their system for about a month, and one is suspected to be a carrier.
Strangles spreads by direct or indirect contact – be it sharing a water trough, tack, clothes, buckets, hands, which is why it is very important to isolate sick animals immediately and have a strict isolation procedure.
Treatment varies from case to case, but usually involves keeping the abscesses meticulously clean by flushing them out several times a day, antibiotics if necessary, supportive stable care – keeping the horse on box rest with a warm deep bed, rugs, palatable food and clean water. The risk of further infection once the abscesses have burst is very high, which is why good hygiene is so important. Occasionally horses can develop abscesses in other body organs, which is very rare and usually fatal.
A complication of strangles is that some horses can “carry” the disease after they have been ill with no outward clinical signs, which means that stopping the spread of the disease is very difficult. It does highlight the importance of having a good isolation procedure for new horses on a yard though. Once a horse has recovered from strangles there is a good chance that he is immune to the disease.
When I was about twelve our yard had a strangles outbreak. We had just come out of the foot and mouth epidemic, so were able to finally hack and compete. One of our ponies brought the disease back to the yard after a local show and a couple of weeks later it spread like wildfire. I remember we had quite a good system of isolation, in that the back stalls were kept for the horses who were ill – they were used to the herd environment so large rooms of toes or threes was ideal for them. Particularly ill horses had internal stables on their own in the old farm buildings which was linked to the stalls. All the healthy horses were then left in one big field, and only allowed to use the outside stables. Us girls were not allowed inside the strangles area, and it was a scary time. I remember the riding school was still trying to continue and my Mum volunteered my pony for the more advanced groups. It wasn’t a success. I was schooling another pony in the same lesson and my pony cantered off with his rider, dumped her, and just trotted over to me!
There were a few horses who were really sick, and there was an air of concern around the yard. Once the horses had recovered they were turned out in another big field at the other end of the land – so they couldn’t come into contact with those unaffected. My pony at the time managed to escape illness, but typically was lame for a week! That was the first time I got to ride the non-riding school horses that were excitable/psychotic/mental/crazy or just plain forwards going. I loved it!
Anyway, it is important to be aware of the symptoms of strangles, and to keep up to date with the current situation of strangles in the area. Likewise, if your horse is unlucky enough to become infected, it is sensible and very considerate to inform those necessary – the yard, farrier, neighbouring yards, and friends.