In the John Steinbeck classic, "The Red Pony," the title horse dies a graphic death from strangles. Although this disease is nasty and very contagious, it is not usually fatal. If you know the facts about strangles, you will understand that it doesn't have to be feared because it is treatable and preventable.
Strangles is the common name for an infection in horses caused by the streptococcus equi bacteria, which is also sometimes referred to as equine distemper. This disease was given the name "strangles" because an infected horse often sounds like it is strangling as it struggles to breathe. This disease infects the lymph nodes in the horse's upper respiratory tract. The nodes in the jawbone area swell up and interfere with its respiration.
A horse can contract strangles at any age, but it is most common in younger horses. It usually happens between the ages of one and five. Horses typically get it from another infected equine. Even though another horse might be symptom-free, it can pass along the bacteria for up to a month. Thus, a recovered horse might have contact with other horses and spread strangles among them. Less commonly, it can be passed along through infected items like feed buckets, saddle blankets and other tack.
An infected horse will start to develop symptoms of strangles within two to six days. Within the first two weeks, it will develop the trademark abscesses on its lymph nodes. The nodes will eventually rupture, and a highly infectious discharge will drain out of them. At this point, most horses will begin to improve, with full recovery within weeks. Although strangles is rarely fatal, ten percent of horses die after contracting it. Strangles itself isn't usually the cause of the fatality. Death is actually caused by another infection, like pneumonia, that takes advantage of the horse's weakened immunity.
Veterinarians typically treat strangles with a course of antibiotics. If the disease is caught in its earliest stages, prompt treatment can keep the lymph node abscessed from forming. If you don't get treatment for strangles until after the nodes are abscessed, antibiotic treatment is useless. Instead, the vet may pierce the abscessed to allow them to drain. Then he will clean and flush the area, and you will need to continue to keep it clean in order to prevent infection. During the treatment period, and for up to a month afterward, the horse with strangles will be able to pass it on. It should be kept isolated from other equines during this entire period.
Horses can be vaccinated in order to prevent strangles. Although the vaccine is not one hundred percent effective in keeping the horse from contracting strangles, it results in a milder case if an infection does happen. Horses that are often around strange equines, such as those who are taken to shows or out on group trail rides, should be vaccinated on an annual basis.