Strangles. We all know of it, and it’s a terrifying thought, especially for those who live in close proximity to other horses, own yards, or have many horses. But what is it? How can we prevent it and how do we get rid of it if it has reached our neck of the woods?
So What is Strangles?
Strangles is caused by a bacteria with the scientific name Streptococcus equi. For those lack a biology background, streptococcus is shaped like a long string of beads, and these particularly shaped bacteria are most commonly the cause of respiratory infections. That's what strangles is. It’s nothing more than a respiratory infection but it is one that could be fatal, and it spreads like wildfire if not found and contained quickly. Unlike some diseases and infections, strangles takes no prisoners; foals, veterans, mares, geldings, mustangs and cobs alike are at risk.
The main worry for strangles is not that it can be fatal, but the speed at which it traverses horses is both worrying and frightening. Outbreaks may last months and even a ‘cured’ horse can still carry the bacterium that cause it originally.
This disease affects the uppermost parts of the respiratory tract. The first few symptoms are like that of a fever - temperatures soar, the horse loses its appetite and looks generally depressed and ill; the coat will lose it shine, and the head will drop. The name comes from the difficulty the animal will have swallowing and breathing, much like a very congested human, but unlike us, horses cannot vomit to clear the throat area, so it remains blocked.
The lymph nodes beneath the throat and jaw are targeted and can develop abscesses which in rare cases can spread throughout the body. Older horses tend to get less severe strains, and unfortunately younger horses and foals have more severe strains with more abscesses and last longer.
How Can We Prevent It?
Spreading through direct and indirect contamination, it is best that horses new to the yards and all their equipment are quarantined immediately until they have been checked by a vet and proved not to have strangles. Overcrowding is heaven for all forms of disease, especially contact transmitted bacterium and viruses, so try to keep a reasonable amount of horses on a certain size of land, as well as keeping horses' vaccinations up to date. These measures will reduce the chances of catching strangles to a much lower level.
It’s nice for horses to have friends, isn’t it? But how do you know that the horses in the field next door don't have strangles? You don’t unless the owner shows proof of medical tests, but to be on the safe side, try to keep horses away from neighboring horses that you don’t know, all it takes is nose-to-nose contact and your whole yard could be on lock down.
How to Cure Strangles?
If veterinary assistance is sought, the death rate is less than 10%. This figure will soar if the disease is left unchecked and unattended to. Treatment is mostly supportive care, keeping the horse comfortable and safe. The horses that are in the clear should have a strangles booster shot to help prevent it from being spread, and the infected ones should be quarantined on another part of the yard if possible. Any equipment for the horse should be sterilized or boil washed to try and destroy the bacterium on it. The lymph nodes should be hot packed to help soften the abscesses and the vet can then drain them. The open flesh should be closely watched and washed with antiseptic to keep it clean. Penicillin can be used in less severe cases to help, but usually when the abscesses show, it could do more harm than good.
Sometimes complications occur and in very rare cases, the abscesses in the throat area can spread to internal organs. This is known as ‘bastard strangles,’ and is incredibly hard to cure once spread. It can cause swelling across the body, laminitis and other problems for months after the infection has run its course.
Please get horses vaccinated and be on the lookout for this dangerous disease!