Pigeon Fever In Horses – Everything You Need To Know!

Last Updated on February 23, 2022

In some regions, pigeon fever in horses is becoming a big problem. This infectious disease is not normally fatal, but it can require a long course of treatment and nursing care. Let’s find out everything you need to know about pigeon fever in horses!

What Is Pigeon Fever In Horses?

Pigeon fever is an infectious disease caused by the bacteria Corynebacterium pseudotuberculosis. This bacteria lives in the soil, making it very difficult to protect our horses against this disease. Pigeon fever is also known as dryland distemper or false strangles.

There are three forms of pigeon fever:

  • The first and most common form of pigeon fever causes external abscesses on the chest and abdomen of the horse.
  • Another form of pigeon fever causes internal abscesses on the abdominal organs of the horse, such as the liver, kidneys, spleen, and lungs.
  • The final form of pigeon fever causes ulcerative lymphangitis of the hind limbs.

How Do Horses Get Pigeon Fever?

Horses are infected with pigeon fever when the bacteria are able to gain access to the body. This normally happens through small wounds or grazes on the skin. The bacteria are able to enter either when soil contaminates the wound, or by insects that land on broken skin and transmit bacteria.

Horses can get pigeon fever at any time of year, but it is more prevalent from summer into early winter. The bacteria that cause pigeon fever can survive for long periods in the soil. If hay, straw, and bedding are contaminated, the bacteria can survive for some time.

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What Are The Symptoms Of Pigeon Fever?

Horses with the external form of pigeon fever will develop abscesses on the chest and abdomen. These will be very evident, especially if they burst!

Depending on the severity of the disease, the horse may also have a fever, and be dull and inappetent. Horses with internal abscesses tend to show more severe symptoms than those with external abscesses.

Horses with ulcerative lymphangitis will have extreme swelling of the hind legs, with oozing sores on the skin.

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How Is Pigeon Fever Diagnosed?

Pigeon fever can be diagnosed by taking a sample of pus from one of the abscesses. This is then cultured to check for the presence of Corynebacterium pseudotuberculosis bacteria. Your veterinarian will also look at the clinical signs of the horse, as well as your geographic location.

Internal abscesses can be harder to diagnose, and your veterinarian may need to carry out diagnostic ultrasound scans and blood tests. Skin biopsies may be required to diagnose ulcerative lymphangitis.

How Is Pigeon Fever Treated?

If your horse is diagnosed with ulcerative lymphangitis or internal abscessation due to pigeon fever, then an intensive period of veterinary treatment is normally required. During this time, your veterinarian may wish to hospitalize your horse to aid treatment.

The treatment for the more severe forms of pigeon fever can include intravenous antibiotics, as well as supportive therapy such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication.

The milder form of pigeon fever, with external abscesses, is easier to treat and is unlikely to require a period of hospitalization. These cases do not normally require antibiotics, and instead, the abscesses are lanced and allowed to drain. The care of these abscesses can take some time, requiring poultices, hot compresses, flushing, and the application of fly prevention creams.

How Is Pigeon Fever Treated

When treating a horse with pigeon fever, the most important thing to remember is that the pus from any abscesses will contain high levels of infectious bacteria. This means that all draining pus should be collected and disposed of as infectious clinical waste. If any bedding becomes contaminated, it must be burned and not put onto the muck heap.

Horses with pigeon fever must be kept quarantined until all clinical symptoms have disappeared. This means that they should not have any contact with other horses, and all equipment must be disinfected after use. A horse with pigeon fever should be kept stabled, as any pus draining onto soil in the paddock will be able to survive for some time.

To prevent your horse becoming infected with pigeon fever, it is vital to check them regularly for small wounds and apply fly repellents. Check your paddocks for objects that may cause injury, such as protruding nails. It only takes a tiny cut and a few grains of soil for your horse to be infected with pigeon fever!

Pigeon Fever In Horses Summary

So, as we have learned, pigeon fever in horses is an infectious disease that is also known as dryland distemper or false strangles. The cause of pigeon fever is a bacteria called Corynebacterium pseudotuberculosis which is present in the soil. Most horses make a full recovery from pigeon fever, although some develop internal abscesses that can be fatal.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on pigeon fever in horses! Is pigeon fever a big problem in your region? Or perhaps you’ve never heard of this infectious horse disease? Leave a comment below and we’ll get back to you!


What Is Pigeon Fever In Horses?

Pigeon fever is a bacterial infection in horses, which causes large abscesses to form on the chest or belly of the horse. The disease is called pigeon fever as the swellings on the chest look like a pigeon's breast.

How To Get Rid Of Pigeon Fever In Horses?

A horse with pigeon fever will need veterinary treatment, as well as nursing care at home. The abscesses are commonly lanced and drained. The horse will need to be isolated to reduce transmission of the infection.

How Soon Can A Horse With Pigeon Fever Be Turned In With Other Horses?

A horse with pigeon fever should be kept separately from other horses until any abscesses have stopped draining. The purulent discharge from pigeon fever abscesses is highly infectious and is a common way in which this disease is transmitted.

How Effective Is The Pigeon Fever Vaccine In Horses?

Pigeon fever vaccine is normally only recommended for horses that have never had this disease. A horse that has had pigeon fever in the past is 90% likely to have natural immunity. The vaccine for pigeon fever is still undergoing testing, and administration of this vaccine should be discussed with your veterinarian to see if it is suitable for your horse.