Strangles panic need not ensue
A local news channel in Colorado is warning horse owners of a “horse disease outbreak” that is the “biggest in decades.” The disease is Strangles and the outbreak is two barns in Grand Valley, Colorado.
“I read the original article and watched the news clip. It was probably fairly predictable that it could be posted and sensationalized,” said Alex Turner, Traceability Veterinarian at the Colorado Department of Agriculture, Animal Health Division. “What they were labeling as an outbreak was just two barns. I would argue that it wouldn’t fit in the category of an outbreak. It didn’t go from one barn to the other, and at any given time, we should be able to find a couple barns in Colorado that have this disease. We don’t keep tabs on it, it’s just so common.”
Strangles, or Streptococcus Equi, is an upper respiratory disease spread from horse to horse or through contaminated surfaces, according to Equine Disease Communication Center (EDCC). It is low severity, common, and highly infectious.
Symptoms of strangles include, “Fever, usually preceding other clinical signs by 24 to 48 hours, abscesses in the mandibular lymph nodes (in the throatlatch and below the jaw), nasal discharge: often thick white and yellow mucus, inflammation of the throat, difficulty swallowing, wheezing, coughing, purpura hemorragica- bleeding from the capillaries which causes red spots on the mucous membranes and swelling of the limbs and head (rare; only in cases with complications), and swelling of the muscles (rare),” as stated on the EDCC strangles fact sheet.
Horses consistent with strangles symptoms are tested and diagnosed through a culture of nasal wash, a nasal swab, or from pus collected from an abscess.
“Most horses don’t die from it. Most horses will get over it in most cases. The key is isolating sick horses. It is rare that they get one of the more complicated forms of the disease. It can be something you lose some time for,” Turner said.
In KKCO’s article published March 15, it stated, “Once horses are diagnosed, they require mandatory quarantine, because it’s such a contagious disease.”
Turner wishes to stress, in response to that statement, that the Colorado Department of Agriculture Animal Health Division does not require quarantining infected animals, but rather recommends doing so.
“The article mentioned a mandatory quarantine. In actuality, it’s all voluntary movement restriction. We want to do the right thing and not spread the disease. If anybody is a horse owner, we hope they’re doing that anyhow,” Turner said.
Treating strangles requires administering antibiotics only to “those with severe clinical signs such as respiratory difficulty as most horses recover without antibiotic treatment. Horses treated with antibiotics early in the course of infection may avoid lymph node abscesses but may not develop immunity to the disease,” according to EDCC fact sheet.
Effectiveness of vaccinating against strangles is often debated. Vaccinations are offered via intranasal or intramuscular, however, Turner said horses have the ability to develop their own immunity to the disease if they are occasionally organically exposed to it.
“I don’t think vaccine is well-known to be effective. The modified live intranasal vaccine can cause abscess in other injection sites if you are vaccination for other diseases like West Nile, or it could cause the horse to contract strangles,” he said. “It’s common enough that horses will get exposed to it on their own.”
EDCC lists cases of varying horse diseases, including strangles in some states. Colorado and surrounding states don’t count strangles cases because there are simply so many, and they aren’t usually a cause for concern.
“There are states that do track cases, like Florida and Kentucky, but I don’t know why they do,” Turner said. “They use a lot of government resources to try to track these diseases.”
Clay Ashurst, who spend 12 years working at feedlots in Fort Lupton, Colorado, and Greeley, Colorado, has seen hundreds of cases of strangles, some of which were in his own horses.
“Pretty much anytime we got a new horse or at least nine out of 10 times, a horse would get strangles, especially if they’re under five years old,” Ashurst said. “We saw it more in the spring time but got to where they got it year round. I’ve never seen a horse get it twice.”
Ashurst would rarely quarantine his horses once they showed symptoms, the other horses had been exposed.
“We almost never treated with antibiotics unless they had strangles internally. If they have it in their head or jaw, you’re way better off not to treat it,” he said. “Strangles is just part of owning horses. If you’re around horses that get moved around some, you’ll eventually get one that gets strangles.”
None of Ashurst’s horses died from the disease and only one of his had a lasting effect — a mare with a hole in the side of her mouth that would occasionally leak water. That, he said, was the worst of all of them.