Strangles. It’s a word that strikes terror into the heart of every horse owner. Livery yards are put into lockdown, competitions are canceled, and in some badly affected areas, turnout is restricted.
So, what is strangles and how can it be prevented?
What is strangles?
Strangles is a highly contagious infection of the horse’s upper respiratory tract (nose and throat).
Strangles often causes large abscesses that can restrict the horse’s breathing and make swallowing painful and problematic. Strangles is distressing for the horse, and infected animals are at risk of serious complications. In very young, weak, or old horses, death can occur.
The most common complication that arises from strangles is a condition called, “Bastard Strangles.” Bastard strangles occurs when the original infection spreads to other parts of the horse’s body, potentially proving fatal.
Some horses develop a condition called, purpura hemorrhagica.
Purpura hemorrhagica is a rare complication of strangles that is caused by bleeding from the capillaries, as a result of an allergic-type reaction and consequent over-reaction of the horse’s immune system.
In response, the horse’s body produces antibodies that are deposited on the walls of the blood vessels. White blood cells accumulate and release enzymes that cause damage to the vessels. As a result, the blood vessels leak, resulting in bleeding and loss of fluid into the tissue, resulting in swelling of the limbs, head, and other areas of the horse’s body.
What are the symptoms of equine strangles?
Strangles often goes undetected in its early stages because the symptoms are very mild.
The horse may develop a sore throat, shown by a loss of appetite, problems eating, or difficulty in extending the head and neck.
You’ll notice localized swelling of the lymph nodes, where the head joins the neck.
The horse may appear depressed and may develop a dry cough. Often, the horse’s temperature will increase in response to the infection, exceeding the norm of 38.50C.
As the condition advances, the horse may develop additional symptoms, including:
- Thick, yellow, snotty discharge from the nose
- Abscesses on the throat, under the jaw, or on the sides of the head
If you suspect that your horse may have strangles, contact your vet immediately and isolate your horse from others on your yard.
How is strangles passed on?
Strangles is highly contagious.
Contrary to popular belief, strangles is not an airborne disease; it can only be passed from horse to another by direct contact or indirectly.
If an infected horse is turned out with or is stabled adjacent to another horse, touching noses would be enough contact for the disease to be passed on.
Strangles can also be passed on indirectly. For example, transmission can occur through sharing feed or water buckets or through contact with a handler who has the bacteria on their skin or clothing. Often, strangles is unwittingly carried from yard to yard by a farrier or even a vet.
It generally takes a week to 14 days from the first contact with the strangles bacteria for the first symptoms to appear.
Note that affected animals can still shed bacteria for up to six weeks following recovery.
What’s a “carrier?”
Once a horse has had strangles, he may carry some of the bacteria around in the air chambers at the top of his neck (guttural pouches). These carriers show no clinical signs of strangles but will shed bacteria during periods of stress or illness, potentially infecting other horses.
It’s estimated that around 10% of horses who have had strangles go on to become carriers. Thankfully, carriers can be successfully treated once they have been identified.
Strangles is preventable by vaccination. However, even vaccinated animals can still contract the disease. Your vet will advise you on the necessity of a strangles vaccination for your horse.
How is strangles treated?
Any horses showing symptoms of strangles should be quarantined to prevent the disease from spreading.
Strangles can be treated successfully with antibiotics. However, the majority of cases make a good recovery thanks to good nursing care, rest, and anti-inflammatory drug therapy. If your horse has abscesses, they can be hot-compressed to encourage them to rupture. Sometimes, your vet may opt to lance the abscesses to speed up the recovery process.
Strangles is a serious disease affecting the horse’s upper respiratory tract. The disease is highly contagious and is spread through direct or indirect contact between horses and handlers. Even after recovery, some horses continue to carry some of the strangles bacteria, potentially infecting other animals.
Have you ever experienced an outbreak of strangles on your yard?
Tell us how you dealt with the problem and what you did to help your horse recover. Use the comments box below to tell us your story!
My mare caught Strangles from a previously unknown carrier on the yard. We knew straight away before the vet arrived what it was. She wasn’t drinking and seemed to have a sore/stiff neck. We called the vet on day one.
We isolated her completely in a mare and foal box. There were 45 plus horses on that yard and we ensured that no other horses caught Strangles. It was in Scotland, the yard wasn’t locked down but there were no cases reported in the area. We contained it, my mum and I, by taking all the correct measures to prevent it spreading. The carrier was removed. Our mare made a full recovery and has been scoped to ensure she is not a carrier. Strangles is nasty but it’s not necessarily a death sentence.
Thanks for sharing your story. Educating everyone to know the signs and how to handle it is the best way forward. It’s not a nice disease, but catching it early and following the right steps, as you did, can prevent it from spreading to others and ensure that the infected horse makes a full recovery.