Steer Clear Of Strangles: Understanding Equine Distemper


Strangles (equine distemper) is a serious respiratory illness that can threaten the life of your horse. It is caused by a strain of strep bacteria known as streptococcus equi. Because it is highly contagious to other horses and spreads quickly, you need to learn to recognize the disease and practice basic prevention to keep infections from spreading during an outbreak. 

Symptoms And Prognosis

When the strangles illness sets in, it causes an overproduction of mucous in the respiratory tract, and the lymph nodes in the neck swell. The swelling becomes so bad that the lymph nodes can burst and become infected. In very young horses or those with compromised immune systems, the excess mucous and the restriction of the airway caused by the swollen nodes can make breathing difficult, which is how the illness gets its name. 

Infection tends to set in 3-14 days after exposure, and younger horses have the most severe reaction to infection, even though it can affect a horse at any age. The initial symptoms include:

  • fever
  • loss of appetite
  • lethargy
  • cough
  • runny nose
  • swelling in the neck

Another early symptom is low positioning of the head. Horses tend to lower the head and extend the neck to try to relieve the pressure/pain of the initial swelling of the lymph nodes. If your horse resists lifting the head, and has the symptoms listed above, it is important to remove your horse from communal feeders, pastures, or horse stalls, as you want to everything you can to prevent other horses from catching the illness. As the disease progresses, pus-filled abscesses (the swollen nodes) will appear near the lower jaw bone and at the back of your horse's throat. These will either burst on their own or they can be lanced by a veterinarian if they are severely restricting the ability to breathe. After the lymph nodes are drained, the disease runs its course and the horse can begin to recover.


Strangles can be fatal for some horses because the disease can lead to other complications that horses are less likely to recover from. The most common complication is the spread of infection, or "bastard strangles", where the strep bacteria travel past the throat into the lungs or the abdominal tract. Swollen nodes in either place can burst and cause further complications. If the nodes do not burst, they can obstruct the airway or the digestive tract and they are not as easily lanced to relieve the pressure. Bastard strangles can also occur when pus from the throat is inhaled into a lung, or when abscesses form in the brain. When an abscess in the brain bursts, it is always instantly fatal.

Treatment And Prevention

Because the strangles disease happens in stages and some horses may have a milder response to infection than others, treatment often varies based on the specific case. However, antibiotics can be effective to help prevent the full development of abscesses. When abscesses burst, the infection can get worse (like when pus is aspirated into the lungs), so some veterinarians won't lance them unless absolutely necessary. On the other hand, draining the pus can help a horse to recover more quickly. Treatment will largely depend in the severity of the infection and the opinion of the vet overseeing treatment, although pain killers, anti-inflammatories and appetite inducers are often used to help the horse be more comfortable during the infection. 

One of the ways to prevent strangles and its complications is to vaccinate. Although the vaccine is not perfect, it can help to reduce symptom severity in older horses with established immune systems. The vaccine is not ideal for every horse, so talk to your vet about whether it is best for you. After you have had a strangles outbreak, you can prevent future outbreaks by making sure that none of your horses are a carrier for the disease. The bacteria can reside in dried pus that resides in guttural pouches of horses that had a past infection. They continue to shed the disease for months or even years after recovery. The only way to know if your horse is shedding is to have them tested. 

To get more help and information, talk with your veterinarian or a local animal hospital. 


18 March 2016

spaying and neutering your pets

Having your pets spayed and neutered is more important than most people realize. Not only does it help manage the pet population, but it can help your pet's behavior and protect them from unwanted and unsafe pregnancies. Our blog is all about spaying and neutering pets. You will learn about the procedure, the benefits and even the potential risks of having it done. Hopefully, the information that we have included here will help you come to an educated decision about whether your pet should be spayed or neutered. Take your time to read through everything compiled here and you should have little question about the procedure.