Katie Dixon is our most recently certified ROTH Instructor. Katie has lots of background in many areas, but she stands out with her knowledge of equine medical issues. Enjoy her article on handling a case of strangles with grace!
On July 2, I was going through my normal lunch feeding routine at Renegade Equine, our home-based, 30 horse equine education facility. As I tossed our gelding herd’s hay over the fence I heard Jack, a big beautiful Quarter Horse cough a few times. Coughs are not uncommon for this time of year as we live in the desert and many horses have dust sensitivities. I paused to watch him chew and swallow to make sure he wasn’t choked, and as he showed me he could do both, I moved on. Fast forward to dinner feeding. Again, I hear Jack cough a few times at his food but this time it sounded more restricted, and as I moved through the field to do physical inspections of the horses for the evening my heart sank as I noticed a large, firm lump under his jaw. There was what looked like an abrasion. Perhaps he had developed a puncture that was brewing an infection, or was this strangles? I immediately haltered Jack, took some pictures, called the owners and our Veterinarian. Jack is a rescue horse with a BIG spook and a lot of fear, so taking Jack’s temperature was going to be a challenge. Thankfully, we had been working together since the previous October, and he and I had a good system of working through new fears together. I implemented the positive reinforcement training we had utilized before and clicker trained our way through taking his temperature. The result was not good; he showed he had a decent fever. When Dr. Jones arrived, she did a full examination of the lump and Jack, and determined since it was nearing darkness and he had a high fever, it was not the best time to sedate and we would meet again in the morning to ultrasound the lump and take a culture to mail out. In the meantime, we built a Quarantine area for Jack, just in case, and sectioned him off from the other horses. I believe that this step, on this first day, is a big piece of what saved us from having strangles move through our herd. I called the owners of the horses who were in immediate contact with Jack to fill them in on the possibilities of what this could be, from best to worst-case scenario. And per the advice from our amazing Vet, informed the owners of rule #1 with possible strangles: DO NOT PANIC.
The next morning, Jack’s fever was down having administered Banamine the previous evening, so it was safe to sedate, drain the abscess, collect the sample and send it off to incubate the cultures. Jack was incredible! He bravely allowed an IV injection by a stranger and had people surrounding him with plastic suits while the procedure was performed ( this is a proactive step taken when communicable diseases are suspected to protect the surrounding horses.) Still, we all hoped for the best, and in one week would know what we were dealing with. In the meantime, we decided to Quarantine not only Jack, but all horses he had direct contact with. This meant that they stayed in their paddocks. We also Quarantined the entire row of pastures on that side of the farm, though there was a gap between Jack’s fence line and theirs, there was a slight likelihood of contamination by feed buckets getting stacked together, hay bag cross-contamination, or contamination by foot traffic and human carrier. All owners with horses on that side of the property were informed at this time, and strict quarantine protocols were put into place. Thank goodness we did, as the results came back 5 days later: Streptococcus equi, commonly known as Strangles.
Here are some basic rules and practices of our Quarantine Procedures which helped us be successful in confining a highly contagious disease to just one horse:
Inform those who need to be informed:
This includes all staff, volunteers, other professionals who come to the property (ie farriers, bodyworkers, etc) and owners of animals on the property. I found that by properly educating, sending a few easy to read scientific articles, and NOT PANICKING, we were able to maintain a calm, matter-a-fact approach to the situation. Everyone was well-informed which kept the facts straight and the rumor-mill from starting.
Eliminate the foot traffic through the affected areas:
We allocated 2 people who were solely responsible for all of the quarantine areas and eliminated all other people from entering the areas unless trained on the protocol.
Minimize chances of spread of disease with good quarantine protocol:
We had bleach footbaths at each entrance/exit to the 4 affected pastures, each of which got changed out every time a human entered the pasture. We also bought bleach wipes which were kept in bins by the gates, and put boots by each gate that were specific to each area. Each area had its own wheelbarrow, muck rake, water tank brush, and hose. Hoses can be one of the easiest ways to spread diseases like strangles. The 11 Quarantined horse’s feed buckets all moved to a location by their pen, hay was moved close to each area, and their supplement baggies all stored near their gates.
We decontaminated EVERYTHING on our farm. Hay Bags, halters, leads, troughs, buckets, hoses, training equipment… you name it, we bleached it! In case the bacteria had somehow been carried to the other side of the farm, we wanted to halt it in its tracks. Thankfully, we already had a color-coded hay bag system to keep the same colors with the same herds and individual horses. Each horse also has their own feed bucket. These two protocols likely contributed in big ways to zero spread of the disease around the property prior to our knowledge of it.
Multiple signs were posted at the entrance to our property, as well as along each fence line and at each gate declaring the Quarantine areas to eliminate the possibility of someone petting a “QT” horse and then another in a “clean” area. We wanted to eliminate the risk as much as possible of someone new coming to the property and unknowingly spreading the disease.
Monitor Herd Health:
A fever is one of the first signs of strangles incubating a horse’s body. We took temperatures of every horse on the property for 3 days, and monitored the temperatures of the 11 Quarantined horses two times a day for ten days. Thankfully we get normal vitals on all of our horses when they are healthy, so we know what “normal” is for each of them. On the upside, all of our horses got really comfortable with getting temperatures taken!
Facility lockdown for 30 Days:
The decision was made that no horses would leave the property, and no new horses would come in for lessons or training. The QT horses would remain in their pastures but could be worked within their areas, so we delegated certain equipment to these areas. The unfortunate part of that was that most of our riding horses lived on this side of the farm. Although this was quite a blow to our typically busiest month of the year, we did our best to make the most of it. My teaching business moved off the property for those with privately owned horses, we had 3 rideable horses that could be worked with on the “clean” side of our farm, and we got creative with lessons and worked with many of our horses on the ground who cannot be ridden.
To clear our quarantine, a few things needed to happen:
1) 30 non-symptomatic days for Jack, No fever, cough or snots
2) No abnormally high temps for anyone else on the farm during this 30-day period
3) 3 consecutive, clean, nasal washes on the 3 other horses directly exposed
4) A clean scope of Jack’s guttural pouches to officially clear him.
I firmly believe that our thorough and fast-acting decision to treat this as a highly communicable disease from the onset was what saved us from having Strangles go through our herd. Though we didn’t have an answer for 5 days, locking down and treating it as Strangles kept our herd healthy and minimized the spread. I was challenged by boarders, clients, and students to lessen the strictness of the Quarantine, was told it was “overkill”, especially on the horses who were not directly exposed but lived on the same side of the property. I stood firm in our decision and as a result, we have 30 healthy horses now.
As trainers, instructors, and horse people, we need to be highly aware of our decontamination practices between farms and facilities. Horses can be non-symptomatic carriers of communicable diseases, and unknowingly diseases like Strangles can be spread easily. To do your best to prevent the spread of disease, consider disinfecting after each session or interaction with different horse properties. Disinfect your boots, equipment, clothes, and skin. If we all keep our awareness heightened, we are doing our part to keep our horses healthy.