When you hear the word Strangles, what do you think? I know when I heard it I went into pure panic mode and was scared to death. I immediately thought the worst and was scared for my filly’s life. What started out as what I thought was a simple cold, ended up infecting six out of ten horses in my herd. But I will tell you, now from experience, that it is nothing to play with but is treatable. Strangles is a bacterial disease in equines. It is caused by an organism called Streptococcus equi ssp equi, essentially Strep Throat in horses. Veterinarians do not universally agree on a single treatment regime, and this has led to some confusion amongst horse owners. Strangles primarily affects the upper respiratory tract of horses. It is an intracellular bacteria, meaning it likes to live and multiply within cells, and particularly inhabits cells of the lymph nodes. Here is my Strangles experience.
About a month ago I noticed that my yearling filly, Mystic, was not acting her normal self. She would come up to eat her breakfast and then instead of going out to graze or going to the roll to munch, she would go to her run in shed and stand. So I finished feeding up and went out to see what was wrong. At first glance I did not notice anything except the attitude change. She is normally in your pocket, scratch me please, all the time. She just came to me and stood with her head close to my chest. At this point no snot, but I could hear her breathing. It was a very raspy almost wheezing sound. I panicked. I stood back and looked at her and noticed her neck was very thick looking around her throat latch and a little thicker than normal all over her neck in general. I then noticed her glands were very swollen and sore. She had a slight fever of 102.6 also. I brought her a pile of hay and she did eat it, but very slowly and was reluctant to put her head to the ground. I administered banamine for the fever and started SMZ tabs per my vet. He advised me that this could be Strangles but also could just be a bad URI, either way treat her symptomatically. And being that all of my horses talk to each other and play over the fence, most likely someone else would come down with it also. Mystic kept the swollen glands and started a snotty nose the following day. Her fever never came back, and after starting antibiotics she was back to grazing like normal. About a week later one of her glands ruptured and drained for about two days before the second one ruptured. When they ruptured I cleaned daily with a Betadine solution and applied an ointment that I make that is all natural to keep infection and bugs out and promote healing. She healed up very quick once they ruptured, and I knew at this point she was in the clear. But I will tell you the labored breathing is the scariest part of this ordeal, because it really does sound like they are being strangled. I was always scared to walk out to check on her in fear of the worst. But that was as bad as she got. Her pasture mate my 20 year old grade Palomino mare never got any symptoms.
The next horse, the new two-and-a-half year old mini I had taken in (which is where I suspected this originated from) was showing the same symptoms the day after Mystic started except she did have a snotty nose, but no swollen glands. She was also reluctant to put her head down, mopey but no fever. I started her on SMZs also. Misty never ruptured or even got swollen for that matter. Her symptoms simply consisted of a snotty nose, slight cough, and a little lethargic, but otherwise normal. Eating and drinking normal, although eating was slower due to pain I assume. I also gave her banamine for pain during the first two initial days. Within a week she was only showing the snotty nose, but later this same cold/strangles came back and she had to go through another round of antibiotics and pain meds. Although again no swollen glands.
The next one was my six year old gelding (Mystics sire), his symptoms started out identical to Mystics. Eating but slow and would go to his shed and mope after meals instead of grazing. She had a slight fever at first followed by the snotty nose and raspy breathing. He did develop a slight cough, but no swollen glands either. I still do not know why some ruptured and some did not I started him on the same treatment, and within a week he was back to normal, no snot or cough. His pasture mate, my fifteen year old gelding Romeo, never had any symptoms. Also the two in pasture across from them, a twenty-four year old draft cross and my seventeen year old appendix mare did not ever show any symptoms.
Jake, my yearling stud, Diego, my 8 month old mini mule, and Comet, my two-and-a-half year old mini Appaloosa gelding, all came down with symptoms about the same time. But again Diego and Comet only mopey, snotty nose and raspy breathing. Diego’s lasted the longest and his breathing was the worst but never skipped a beat as far as eating, drinking and grazing. Jake on the other hand went through the whole process with a vengeance. He started with the snotty nose, which cleared up, but quickly came back a week later. When it came back it was accompanied by a fever, raspy breathing and extremely swollen glands. His glands took about two weeks to rupture and when they did they were extremely full and drained quite a bit of puss and fluid for days. I did the same regimen of meds and cleaned it twice a day. After the rupture he made leaps and bounds, back to his old mischievous self and back to gaining weight. He was a recent rescue and had put on about 75 pounds when he came down with Strangles. He did not lose any weight but he had stopped gaining during his illness. Within three days of rupturing, you could see a significant weight gain in his rump and rib cage.
So of my ten horses, Mystic, Misty, Classic, Diego, Comet and Jake all had “something.” I do believe that at least the two who ruptured had actual strangles, but I also think the others just had a mild case of it. Strangles is a droplet transmitted disease, which means the horse must “ingest” fluids like snot or slobber of an infected horse to get the disease. Good husbandry after infection can help the spread but usually horses housed together are going to get it if they do not have immunities to it already. Once a horse has strangles, they do not get the disease again. Kind of like chicken pox in people, although I am sure there are cases where they get them again it is highly unlikely. This could be why some of mine did not go through the whole process; maybe they had immunities to it already. I don’t know, all I know is my experience was a long and scary process, but everyone came out okay.
I went through and bleached all water tubs, feed buckets and anything that body fluids may have come in contact with. I also used a ½ cup of bleach in each tank after I refilled them daily and sprayed a 10% bleach solution on all buckets after feeding. I was determined to get rid of this as quick as possible. Now the only two with any symptom are Comet who only has snot in one nostril and very minor and Jake who is in the healing process after his glands ruptured. I will forever quarantine my new incomers, although this is not always going to work. Do not let anyone tell you that it’s your fault or that bad husbandry is why you got it. It could and does happen to even multimillion dollar barn and horses with even the strictest cleaning regiments in place. If you get it, just treat it symptomatically and remember it is a lengthy process, but that most likely aside from losing some sleep you and your herd will be just fine. Hope this sheds a little light on a subject that many are scared to talk about. Yes my horses got Strangles, and yes we survived!
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