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Horse Strangles:  Every Owner's Nightmare - Part Two

By Jeffrey Rolo

This article is the second in a two-part series about equine strangles. If you haven't already, start with Part One of Horse Strangles: Every Owner's Nightmare.

What are bastard strangles?

Bastard strangles occurs when the Streptococcus equi bacteria starts affecting lymph nodes beyond the throat area, creating abscesses in other areas of the body or internally. Depending on the placement of the abscesses, bastard strangles could potentially be fatal. Luckily, bastard strangles are also uncommon.

Should I vaccinate my horse against strangles?

The Streptococcus equi bacteria is not easy to vaccinate against because while the vaccination will place antibodies within the blood stream they don't actually place immunities within the pharynx tissues, the area that gets struck by strangles. Optimistically your horse may develop a 50% less chance of developing the disease when exposed to strangles if immunized. 50% at best does not speak highly for this vaccine. Another strike against it is its short-term results; a horse on this vaccine would require regular boosters every six-months to a year.

Studies have suggested that a vaccination can also lessen the severity and/or symptoms brought upon by strangles should a vaccinated horse catch it.

My personal experiences show the vaccination failure rates to be true. One year I decided to try out a strangles vaccination since many new horses were coming and going from the stable. While the vaccination did make a one or two of my younger horses miserable for a day or two (a horse can have adverse reactions to vaccinations such as soreness or swelling at the point of injection), it did not shield them from catching strangles. In fact the only year any of my horses did catch strangles was the year they were vaccinated against it… just weeks after the actual vaccination in fact. I don't point this out to suggest the vaccination itself brought on the strangles since scientific studies have stated the vaccination does not bring about strangles, but in the best light the vaccination was a useless expense.

Is it true once a horse catches strangles they are immune against it?

I wish it were as easy as a case of chicken pox where once we battle the childhood disease we never need worry about struggling against it again. But the reality is a horse will not develop a permanent immunity to strangles – he could potentially catch it more than once in his lifetime. The reasons some believe this myth are:

bulletAfter battling strangles a horse will develop some immunity to the disease that should protect them for the remainder of the season; it just doesn't last forever. Strangle immunity could be compared to the flu – most of us might catch it once during flu season, but when we do we're generally safe from catching it again that season. It doesn't make us immune to all future years, though.
bulletStrangles is a disease that can affect horses of all ages, but it's far more common among horses aged one through five.

How much should I really worry about horse strangles?

Not a whole lot. If your horse(s) is not exposed to new horses regularly the chances of them ever developing this disease is low. The times you need be watchful for strangles are when new horses are introduced to your herd or your horse travels to another stable/barn for horse shows, etc.

If you own a stable it's a good practice to isolate any new horses from your normal herd for as long as possible, or approximately four weeks, whichever comes first. This will ensure a newcomer that may have developed the disease cannot quietly spread it to the rest of your herd.

And finally, if your horse does develop strangles don't panic! Immediately call your veterinarian so you can both monitor the severity of the case and determine the best way to handle it. Chances are your horse will be miserable for a few days, and you will probably be disgusted at the mess created during the healing process, but by cleaning your horse and providing suitable care he'll likely come out of it just fine.

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