Dealing With Strangles


As I write this article I am surrounded by various bits and pieces of tack that have just been disinfected. I am having trouble getting the smell of bleach out of my nose because my wife and I have been going through it by the gallon. On Easter long weekend we had two horses get sick, we suspected strangles and lab work has confirmed this diagnosis. To date we have six sick horses and holding. Strangles is a highly contagious equine form of Strep throat. I will not go into the scientific explanation of the disease. Basically the horses go off their feed, get a fever and a grossly runny nose and in some cases develop abscesses under their chin

What I want to talk about is not really about sick horses but the management nightmare that Strangles can become. I have been vaguely aware of Strangles for many years but luckily I have never seen it before. I have become quite informed in past weeks about Strangles, vaccinations, different symptoms, treatments, complications, and ways to prevent the spread. I have found that it is not as uncommon as I thought, many clients and colleagues I have spoken to have come across it in the past. Talking to people about it evokes many different responses, some panic thinking that the horses will die, some brush it off as if it were a common cold and some take a methodical approach to dealing with it. A very important factor in deciding how to react to Strangles is the amount of information people have about it. How would you react if you got a call saying that there is a case of Strangles in your barn?

The information available on Strangles is overwhelming. The problem with the information is that much of it is contradictory. There seems to be little consensus on incubation periods, whether to treat with antibiotics or not and how effective the vaccine is in preventing it. There is also a lack of agreement on how long the bacteria lives in the ground, equipment and fences and how long horses shed the bacteria after they stop showing symptoms. In my opinion a good relationship with your vet, access to up to date information and bleach are the most important things you need.

It is our experience that the horses do not all show the same symptoms or the severity of the symptoms differs. The over all health and well being are big factors, the horses here that got sick are all young, some were in training some were not, some were fit some were not. Some only seemed to be sick for a day or two while others have been ill for 10 days so far. There is a big difference in how sick they got, from a mild snotty nose and elevated temperature to dripping snot and puss from erupted abscesses. At the time of writing this article we are on day 12 with strangles so it is still possible that more horses here will get it or symptoms will get worse.
Several of the sick horses I have were vaccinated before they were exposed. The vaccine is only moderately effective in preventing the disease but it does help them get better faster with decreased severity of symptoms. The treatment varies, I have three horses on penicillin with good response, two are on homeopathic remedies also with good response and one has only had bute to help with the fever. One client’s vet told her that Strangles is harder on people than it is on the horses and I am inclined to agree with him. Barring complications they seem to get sick and then get better. This happens over the course of a couple of weeks. Managing the disease can continue for months.

For those people with a closed herd once the horses are better it is often not an issue. In boarding barns it can be much more difficult to deal with. As a trainer I bring client’s horses home to work on so I do board horses here. Many of the horses that come here go home in 90 days or less to locations all over the province. As a result I have quarantined my farm to horses coming or going so the disease will not be passed on. Unfortunately I did send a clients horse home after he was exposed but before he was sick. He has been quarantined at home and hopefully that is where it will end. For me the management of this disease has changed the dynamic of my business. I can no longer bring in outside horses for fear that they get sick before the bacteria in the ground and on the fences have ceased to be viable. So unfortunately and effective immediately I will no longer be accepting clients horses for training.

Between quarantining the farm, isolating horses, foot baths, coveralls, rubber boots and surgical gloves we think we have a handle on the disease. My wife and I have spent considerable time on the phone and computer contacting clients and clinic hosts informing them of our situation. Everyone has been supportive and understanding. Several people we spoke to asked us if we didn’t want them to tell any one about strangles on our farm. As much as I would like this to quietly go away we feel that it is our responsibility to inform everybody that I am likely to come in contact with what is happening. Trying to keep this a secret would only hurt more later on down the road. I am hoping that my clinic schedule will be relatively unaffected by this and I will be re locating my business to Vancouver Island for the summer since I can no longer work from home.

I will not offer advice on dealing with Strangles, everyone seems to deal with it a different way based on the information they have. I will say though that the more people you talk to about it whether you have it or not the better. We all know that in the horse world there is a certain amount of gossip and if more people were forthcoming with information the better off we would all be. I don’t want anyone spreading stories behind my back so I will say it now WE HAVE STRANGLES ON OUR FARM!

© 2006 Will Clinging