Every year, usually during the summer months, strangles epidemics appear in Florida. Here’s how to reduce your stress and keep your equine safe.
Jane loves her horse Rocket so much that when he refused to eat his grain she knew he wasn’t feeling good. Worried, she called the vet and scheduled an appointment for later in the week. The vet assured her, that as long as he was drinking fluids, he wouldn’t starve before he got there but if there were any other changes, to call him immediately. The next day, Rocket had a nasal discharge and lumps on his throat latch. She called the vet back and he came right out. Did Rocket have an upper respiratory infection or did he have the dreaded strangles? Cultures come back positive and Rocket presented classic signs of strangles.
Jane boards Rocket at a large boarding facility. A miniature horse named Jody had an abscess form and start draining on her neck. Her stall close to Rocket but she doesn’t have a snotty nose. Does Jody have the strangles too? Cultures come back positive for strangles.
An old gelding in the stall next to Rocket has decided to care for Rocket by licking the snot off his nose. This gelding is 25 years old. Is his life in danger by doing this? The old gelding was quarantined with Rocket and Jody and watched vigilantly by staff and owner. They worried about him because he was so old. He never got sick. No fever, no snot, no sickness and he licked the snot off a positive horse daily. Should he have been kept in quarantine? The answer is, “Yes”. This horse, though he didn’t get sick, because of his exposure to the virus needed to stay in the quarantine barn.
The owner of the barn that Rocket, Jody and the Old Gelding boarded at, cancelled all shows on the property, prohibited any horses from leaving and coming onto the property and posted a sign notifying all that entered of the quarantine and asked that if they did need to enter, to disinfect when leaving. She even had a pan of bleach water for and a spray for boots. Did she do the right thing? Yes. Even though some of her boarders panicked and the gossip committees chattered loudly. Clear heads prevailed and most of the horse community applauded her efforts to contain the infection. I say “most” because there are always that crazy few.
A beautiful mare in a different barn moved in with a snotty nose and on penicillin. The horse was diagnosed with an upper respiratory infection by a vet from the barn she came from and her new owners were not informed of her condition prior to arrival. After a moment of panic and a brief discussion with the barn management and vet, she is quarantined while finishing her meds, as a precaution. The horse finishes her medication and appears healthy, but over the next year she gets a snotty nose when worked, but only sometimes, usually during the colder months. It’s thick snot and it’s concerning to her owner but it doesn’t last more than a day and she doesn’t run a fever. Finally the owner decides to have the horse scoped to find out what is causing her occasional snotty nose. What the vet finds is alarming and the horse tests positive for the strangles virus! Turns out she had an infection, probably strangles which stayed in her sinus cavities. She would shed the virus off and on the entire year. The vets thought that she didn’t shed enough of the virus to get the other horses sick and it probably helped boost their immune system BUT she was considered a carrier. She had three options. Stay in quarantine the rest of her life, die or surgery which was costly and the horse had to be quarantined for several months while she was treated and flushed twice a day. Her owner chose surgery and the barn manager built a makeshift barn just outside the property in some woods. This horse had surgery on her sinuses and she was flushed twice a day (what was coming out was highly contagious) in the woods for MONTHS! Talk about dedication. Her owner would put on a hazmat suit to treat her horse that was confined to a 12×12 stall for months. The horse owner had a medical and contagious disease education and follows a very stringent decontamination process; however the owner was ostracized and criticized by the other boarders. The barn owner and horse owner opted to keep this very quiet. If the boarders reacted badly could you imagine what a tight horse community would do? Well the barn manager felt that she might get lynched and because her barn was not under a mandatory quarantine (the horse was off the property) she felt it was better to keep quiet at this point.
How do you know what Strangles looks like in a horse?
According to Merrium – Websters dictionary, Strangles is: an infectious febrile disease of horses caused by a streptococcus (Streptococcus equi) and marked especially by inflammation and congestion of mucous membranes of the respiratory tract.
Yep, It’s Strep Throat in horses and it’s highly contagious and got it’s common name from the sound the horses made in respiratory distress from the mucus and swollen glands from abscessing.
No one wants to see their horse sick and basically dealing with a Strangles outbreak is a huge pain the rear to the owners, other boarders and barn management.
Once a horse is diagnosed the barn is quarantined. Sick horses must be kept away from non sick horses. Horses that “appear” healthy must have their temperature taken daily to watch for fever. Horses that have a fever of over 103 degrees are considered sick and must be moved to quarantine. Barns, stalls, buckets, basically everything, must be disinfected daily. There must be disinfection stations at the entrance of each barn if there are multiple barns on the property.
It can take up to 14 days for horses to show clinical signs of strangles. So horses that appear healthy may be shedding the virus. A horse that had the virus can appear to have become healthy and still shed the virus for up to 6 weeks after becoming healthy. The virus can live outside a horse, in pastures, on clothing, tack, buckets, fences for 3 to 4 weeks. It is recommended to rest contaminated pastures for 4 weeks. Heat is not optimal condition for the strangles virus, bless the Florida heat wave.
Here are some guidelines that MV Veterinary Services website recommends:
Guidelines for Handling an Outbreak
Isolate the infected horse(s) immediately.
The isolation area should prevent any direct contact with other horses. Turnout areas, water and feed troughs, and tack items must not be shared with other horses.
Contact your veterinarian for treatment options, especially if the horse is having trouble breathing, is not eating or is running a high fever.
Monitor all other exposed horses daily and immediately isolate them if they show any symptoms of strangles, including running a fever of 103 F or greater.
Restrict movement of animals into or out of the facility.
Animals typically recover in approximately three weeks; however, bacterial shedding can occur for months. Ideally, recovering horses should be tested by a Veterinarian and return three negative cultures before being returned to the herd.
All water containers, feeders, brushes, stall walls, fencing and trailers should be cleaned thoroughly and disinfected before being returned to general use. Strangles bacteria are susceptible to most disinfectants as long as label directions are followed and the product is used appropriately.
The exact length of time that strangles can survive in the environment varies widely. A general recommendation is that pastures and turnout areas that housed infected animals should be left open for at least 30 days.
Here are some other ideas. Follow the direction of your vet! If your vet says to do something different than what you read here, please follow their advice. I am not a vet. I am not a vet tech. I am not in any medical field. My experience has been hands on equine experience for 39 years. I have been through many strangles outbreaks and I know the drill but I always call my vet first when my horses are not feeling well. No exceptions.
If your horse is tested positive for strangles, your vet has to alert the Ag division and your barn must be quarantined to prevent spread of the disease. It is at this time, I would alert neighboring barns and horse owners about the quarantine. Yes, some people will panic in a knee jerk response. Some may blame you and talk bad about you, behind your back. Pay no attention to them and know, you are doing the right thing. Follow your vet’s advice on how to handle sick and non sick horses as well as the best decontamination practices. Do not hide it at this point.
The best way to handle strangles is to prevent it. If you are a barn manager or owner and you take your horses to shows and or board horses, require the vaccination. The vaccine comes in two parts making it expensive since the vet has to administer a boost two weeks later. Require proof of vaccination from all incoming horses. Know that the vaccination doesn’t always prevent strangles but it’s a good start.
Next, if you can, quarantine or limit access to any incoming boarder. Give them their own paddock for a few weeks and keep their movement limited. I know a lot of boarding facilities do not have the facility or room to quarantine each horse that comes in. That’s ok, do your best. Keep a good eye on the new horse and if you can, get a daily resting temp on the horse and take it for the next week or two at the same time.
When going to a show or event, you can disinfect common areas and stalls with a bleach solution. Take your buckets for water; do not allow your horses to drink from common water troughs. Do not allow your horse to graze at the show grounds, instead hang a hay bag. Don’t touch any of the other horses at the show. If you see a horse at the show that seems sick, notify the show management immediately.
To find out if there is strangles outbreaks near you, head on over to this site below.
If you find out there an outbreak near you, don’t panic, you have the tools to keep your horse safe. Horses rarely die over strangles anymore.
If I missed anything, or if you have a great tip to share, post an informational comment and let everyone know.