How Do Horses Get Strangles?

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I’m not sure there’s a sickness that sounds worse than Strangles! The name itself sheds light on how nasty this sickness can be.  Strangles in horses is a highly contagious equine sickness that is found worldwide.

Strangles is scary, but it is manageable with the right foreknowledge.  Barns have to go undergo quarantines and entire operations have to be shut down.  The best we can do to protect our horses is to understand what strangles is, how horses contract strangles, and how to treat strangles.

What is Strangles in Horses?

Strangles is a highly infectious equine disease that primarily affects horses from ages one through five, though all horses can succumb to it if sufficiently exposed.  When a horse contract strangles, its lymph nodes become infected and swollen, causing the horse’s airway to shrink and tighten.  Abscesses form and can cause the horse to be very uncomfortable

Strangles Symptoms In Horses

The horse can feel although it cannot breathe. The raspy noises horses make when trying to breathe with these infected lymph nodes can often sound like they are being strangled,  hence the name of the disease.

The infection and swelling are frequently accompanied by a high fever. Fevers in horses are much higher than fevers are in humans because a horse’s natural body temperature is higher than that of a human. A human’s natural body temperature is around 98 degrees Fahrenheit, while a horse’s natural body temperature is around 100 or 101 degrees Fahrenheit.  So, when a human is running a temperature, it’s around 100 or 101 degrees, but when a horse is running a fever, it is typically over 105 degrees.

Along with swelling and fever, a horse with strangles will often have a runny nose.  If your horse appears to be showing one or more of these signs, call your vet and alert your barn owner or manager immediately.  Sometimes horses will have a runny nose and/or fever and just have a common cold, but it is better to be safe than sorry when dealing with strangles symptoms.

How Does a Horse Contract Strangles?

The most common way for a horse to contract strangles is through physical contact with another infected horse, or contact with anything that has been in contact with an infected horse.  This could include saddle pads, jump boots, bits, halters, buckets, grain bins, sheets, and the list could go on.  

Think of how we react when someone in our household gets pink-eye.  Everything that they touch is treated as a way to contract the sickness. Strangles operates the same way.  Anything an infected horse touch is a way for your horse to contract strangles.  

This is why horses are required to go through routine vet checks when traveling from barn to barn and going out to horse shows.  Any barn with strangles is frequently banned from having horses coming or going and goes into complete lockdown and quarantine until the sickness has passed.

How Do You Treat Strangles?

The best way to treat strangles is to contain it.  This is why barns completely shut down to any kind of travel until the disease has passed.  Strangles will run its course on a horse and will typically go away without any lasting damage if the horse is in a clean, sterile environment. Horses that have strangles simply need to rest, stay comfortable, and wait for the abscesses on their lymph nodes to burst. Once they have healed, they will be okay to return to normal life.

A quarantine also helps protect the other horses at the barn of an infected horse.  Keeping the infected horse out of range and out of touch of all the other horses will help protect them from also contracting strangles.

Horses that contract strangles will often not show signs until 10-15 days until after the sickness has settled into their systems.  Because of this, many horses often get strangles at one time;  they are infecting each other before we know they are even sick.  

How Do You Treat Strangles?

Any horse exposed to strangles while traveling should be quarantined when returning home. Whether it tests positive or negative for the disease.  For example, a group of horses from my barn went to a big indoor show last winter. One of the horses at the show came down with strangles (while at the show). And all of our horses were then considered exposed.  They all got tested twice before they came home, and thankfully all tested negative both times. But, even when they got home, they were put in quarantine in a separate wing of the barn. This goes for two weeks before being allowed to “rejoin society.”

Because of my barn manager’s diligence, none of the horses at my barn contracted strangles.  But, horses can have the disease and not test positive until 10-15 days after the fact. It is important to take extreme precautions when dealing with exposure to strangles.

A Strangles Cure?

There is a vaccine for equine strangles, but not many horses get it.  This is because it has so many side effects. Most horse owners and barn owners decide it is not worth the risk of harming their horses.  

Frequently, the vaccine has actually given horse strangles.  Horses have also had horrible reactions to the vaccine which have sometimes caused lasting damage.  It is rumored that a new strangles vaccine while be hitting the market in 2020. For now, it seems the best way to treat a horse with strangles is just to keep the horse comfortable. Then,  wait for the sickness to run its course.

Conclusion

Strangles can be a scary illness to deal with, but it can be manageable if you are prepared.  Always keep an eye on horses that have been traveling and horses that are new to your barn. If a case of strangles does occur, make sure basic sterilization. Also, quarantine measures are taken, and wait for the sickness to run its course.  

If you do these things, life should go back to normal sooner than you think! I hope this article helped you better understand what strangles is, how horses get strangles, and how to treat a horse with strangles.  Please share this article, and share with us your experiences in dealing with strangles!

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