All You Need to Know About Strangles

There have been yet more reports this week of  cases of strangles, this time in Peterborough and Devon which has raised  fears once again among horse owners worried that their horses may catch it. We put this disease under the spotlight and answer your most burning questions.

What is strangles?

It’s one of the most common equine diseases in the UK – and critically it’s highly contagious.

What causes it?

It’s caused by bacteria and affects the upper respiratory tract. It can be contracted by horses, ponies and donkeys. Horses under 5 years of age are more susceptible than older horses and strangles most often occurs when the weather is cold and damp.

How do I know if my horse has it?

Image: Meadows Vets

The most obvious sign is a thick yellow discharge from the nose. Affected animals will suffer with a temperature (above 38.5C) and hot, painful abcesses  may appear on the sides of the ear and throat. The abscesses which cause the lymph nodes to swell often burst discharging highly infectious, thick creamy-yellow pus. In some cases the glands swell so much they restrict the airway hence the name strangles.This  is likely to make it very painful for the horse to eat and therefore the horse will suffer a loss of appetite. He may also appeared depressed and dull.

How can horses get strangles?

Strangles can be spread easily by direct contact between horses or indirectly by handlers, equipment or contamination of the environment. In other words,the infection can be spread: • by nose to nose contact between horses • via equipment shared with infected horses, such as: • water troughs where the bacterium can survive for long periods • feed buckets • grooming equipment • tack. The disease can take 2-10 days to show itself after the first infection.

What do I do if I think my horse has strangles?

Firstly, isolate the suspected horse from contact with all others and call the vet. The vet will do blood tests, take nasal swabs to detect the presence of the bacteria, and may take further internal analyses of the gut. If your horse is confirmed as having strangles you will be advised to follow some very specific care, including:

  •  Isolating that horse which ideally means keeping it 25 metres away from other horses
  • Stop all movement of horses on and off the premises.
  • Minimise the number of people entering  the infected zone. No dogs or cats should be permitted.
  • Only one person, who wears protective clothing and changes before handling other horses, or even better does not touch any other horses, should deal with this horse.
  • It should have its own buckets, brushes, wheelbarrows and other equipment.
  • Dispose of all bedding, uneaten food and water carefully and use a string disinfectant such as Virkon or Jeyes fluid.

What else can I do?

A strangles outbreak can last for many months on premises with inadequate isolation procedures causing continued welfare problems and disruption to the yard. So, it’s really important you carry out strict biosecurity steps. The British Horse Society recommends the following action is taken :

  • Disinfecting all food and water containers, clothing, stabling and equipment used by an infected horse is imperative.
  •  If transporting horses it is good practice to disinfect the horseboxes used before and after collecting any new horses.
  •  Quarantining new arrivals to a yard is the most effective way to prevent a strangles outbreak.
  •  Quarantine means no direct or indirect contact between a new horse and other animals, or equipment used by other horses.
  •  A quarantine period should be a minimum of two weeks. Horses assessed as high risk are advised to be kept isolated for three weeks.
  • Horses that appear to be disease-free after this quarantine period only pose a risk if they are a carrier. The blood test will help to detect a carrier status of a horse.
  • Advise other horse owners in your local area via social media, and word of mouth. This will alert others to be on  the look out for signs in their own horses.

Is there any good news?

Yes, it’s rarely fatal, it can’t be caught by humans and horses generally recover well although it can take a few weeks. A vaccine for strangles is available. Contact your veterinary surgeon for further information.

How can I prevent my healthy horse getting strangles?

  • When you are away from home take your own buckets, water, feed and grooming kit and avoid sharing these where possible. If you do share, then disinfect the item between each use.
  • Minimise direct contact spread by preventing nose to nose contact between horses during the day.
  • Reduce indirect contact spread from people by ensuring you wash your hands between handling different horses and minimise the number of people touching your horse.
  • After the event, make sure all equipment, tack footwear and clothing is washed and disinfected.


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