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Strangles in a barn

From: Megan

Hi Jessica! I really appreciate all the advice I have found on your website. I have a question about strangles. An eight week old foal that recently moved to the small barn where we board our horses was diagnosed with strangles today. Our 3 horses have been vaccinated against strangles, but I understand the vaccine is only 50% effective. Two of our horses are across the aisle from the foal, and our other horse is in the pasture far from the foal's turnout. We were planning to take 2 of our horses to a show in 10 days, but we aren't sure if we can now. What advice do you have for us? Lori

Hi Lori!

Strangles is highly contagious and having your horse(s) across the aisle from a horse with strangles is very much like having your child(ren) sharing a dorm room with a child with chicken pox or measles. In the case of strangles, vaccinations typically won't keep horses from contracting the illness, but they WILL tend to make the illness less severe. Talk to your vet immediately, and s/he can help you evaluate the risk to your horses. If they're older horses, they are probably at significantly less risk than they would be if they were, say, 5 years old or under. The main things for you to remember is that strangles is a dangerous bacterial disease, that it doesn't affect all horses in the same way, and that your vet, who knows your horses and their situation, will need to design individual evaluation and treatment programs based on the condition and needs of each individual animal.

Keep a close eye on your horses. It usually takes between a few days and a full week, and sometimes it takes as long as two weeks, for exposed horses to begin showing symptoms. Watch for signs of them losing their appetites and/or becoming lethargic, and if I were you I would begin taking their temperatures at least twice a day. If their temperatures begin to rise, talk to your vet. If they reach a degree or a degree and half above normal, talk to your vet again. If they develop a nasal discharge or swollen glands, or if you hear them coughing, or if you see them standing in a horse-about-to-cough position (neck and head extended forward, with little or no bend in the neck), keep checking their temperatures and stay in VERY close touch with your veterinarian. Strangles requires medical attention and medical advice - this is not a "wait and see" sort of illness.

Keep your horses well away from the foal and from anything that touches the foal, including tack, equipment, walls, posts, brushes, and of course humans. By now the barn owner will probably have put the foal in quarantine and disinfected everything that the foal has touched, which is important for the protection of other horses that may be coming in, but may be a bit late to help the ones that are already in the barn. The foal will need to be kept and turned out as far as possible from other horses so that no other horses will be in contact with the foal OR its pasture grass or fence or water tank. Its manure and bedding should be kept away from flies (covered with a tarp and/or burned, and the barn owner should ramp up the barn's normal fly-control program.

It's very odd that such a young foal has strangles. It is far too young to be given the vaccine, but it shouldn't need a vaccine in any case - normally an eight-week-old foal would be protected - now and for the next month or two - by the immunities it got from its mother's colostrum!

Here's a link to a useful article on the subject:

Go ahead and ask your vet about the show, but I hope you won't be too disappointed if you're unable to go. Ten days is too soon, and if your barn owner is a responsible person, s/he is unlikely to allow anyone to move horses off (or onto) the property for ANY reason. A responsible barn owners will usually comply with the Dept. of Agriculture, take all possible horse management precautions, and keep the barn closed for a full month after the last (not the first!) case of strangles has been diagnosed. Even if your horses are immune, they may not be permitted to go anywhere until the barn is out of quarantine.

Dealing with a strangles outbreak is dangerous and frightening at worst, and a huge PITA at best, but it's sensible to be aware, informed, and prepared. An infected horse should not have been put into the main barn, but alas, this sort of thing often happens when someone decides to bring a new horse into a barn without observing a quarantine period. That's the PURPOSE of the quarantine period - protection for the other horses on the premises, and for the barn itself.

If you ever have a boarding barn of your own, or if you have a private barn and want to be sure to keep your horses safe from such outbreaks, make it your unwavering practice to have a special quarantine area - a small barn with attached paddock, preferably far away from your main barn - for incoming horses. Keep each new horse there for three weeks, have the vet use nasal swabs to check its status, and take its temperature at least once a day, so that you can be sure that it isn't incubating something nasty that you would prefer that it NOT share with the rest of the horses on the property.

Good luck, and please let me know what happens. I'll be thinking about you and your horses - and about the poor foal, too.


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