Pigeon Fever in Horses 101: Causes, Symptoms, and Recovery

Pigeon fever in horses is a rare condition that occurs in horses in dry, hot areas and can be very contagious. This condition is not severe but if left untreated can cause adverse effects on the horse. It was labeled as a West Coast disease before but it is spreading to other parts as well.

Since it is very rare and few people know much about it most people wonder what pigeon fever in horses is, how it occurs, how to treat and prevent it. This article is here to answer all your questions.


What Is Pigeon Fever?

Also known as Colorado Strangles or dry land distemper, pigeon fever is an infection that is characterized by a massive swelling that bulges on the pectoral muscles. If not treated, the infection can cause organ failure, tissue damage, bone infection, and ultimately death. Its symptoms include:

  • Swelling and formation of an abscess that looks like a pigeon.
  • Noticeable pain and lameness of the horse that can be seen through strain and wincing during movement. Sometimes the horse does not move at all.

Although it is rare, pigeon fever in horses mostly occurs in summer especially in dry areas because of the heat, the dust, and the large presence of flies. The infection is highly contagious, but the condition is not life-threatening. This condition is endemic to Texas, California, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado but there have been small outbreaks in other places as well.

There are three types of pigeon fever. They are:

  • External pigeon fever that causes the abscesses on the belly and the chest;
  • Internal pigeon fever that can affect the lung, liver, kidneys and other internal organs;
  • Ulcerative lymphangitis, which affects the lymphatic systems. However, this condition is very rare.

Causes of Pigeon Fever

Pigeon fever in horses is caused by a bacterium called Corynebacterium pseudotuberculosis. It is carried and spread by horn flies. These flies are small grey flies that feed on blood from large mammals like horses and buffaloes. They carry the bacteria, and a bite from these flies causes the formation of abscesses beneath the skin and causes the swelling of the pectoral muscles. Humans are resistant to the bacteria but those handling horses can easily pass the infection from horse to horse through contact or use of equipment that might have come in touch with the fluid from the abscess.

Treatment for Pigeon Fever

Pigeon fever has to run its course, but several remedies can be applied to reduce the bacterial infection and reduce pain. In external infections, handling is much easier since apart from facilitating recovery, the horse’s antibodies will fight the infection.

Surgical or local lancing should be done to draw the abscess to the surface by using heat packs and salves. When the abscess fills up with pus, it can be drawn out to facilitate faster healing. This fluid should be drained and disposed of well to prevent it from getting into the soil and infecting other animals. This site should be cleaned thoroughly every day, and hot packs should be used to avoid infection of the wound. The area should also be disinfected and the barn kept clean to prevent complication. When administering this type of care, care should be taken to avoid passing the condition to other horses and livestock.

Anti-inflammatory drugs can be used to reduce the swelling and control pain. A good anti-inflammatory to use for pigeon fever in horses is phenylbutazone. For internal infection, a vet can issue antibiotics. For external infections, antibiotics should not be used to ensure that the infection does not return even stronger. This is because the antibiotics will clean out the infection from the system but not from the outer skin that can still cause reoccurrence. External infection requires extended treatment since the bacteria may be left on the skin. As such, more remedies are necessary to ensure that the condition is gone completely.

As the treatment is ongoing, bacterial tests can be done to test the effectiveness of the treatment. The horse should have a steady supply of food to help it improve its immune system in order to fight the fever off. Other preventive remedies like fly control should be applied to prevent reinfection.

Prevention of Pigeon Fever

Since there is no vaccine for pigeon fever currently, reduction of environmental contamination is the best way to prevent the occurrence of pigeon fever in horses. The best way to control it is to ensure that horses are protected against the vectors.

Control of fly population is the best way to prevent the occurrence of pigeon fever. Control of flies can be done through the use of biological control agents, insect repellant on the horses, and setting traps. Horses should also be inspected for open wounds to prevent spread and chances of reinfection after treatment.

Proper manure management to destroy the bacteria is crucial since it can thrive in soiled feed for up to two months. Adequate barn maintenance is also essential to ensure clean bedding and prevent the bacteria from thriving.

Regular checkups by a vet are also crucial to detect the infection early and make its management easy. This also helps to prevent spreading. This should be done regularly on all horses. Isolation of sick animals is also a way to contain the situation to avoid spreading it to other animals. New horses should also be isolated and inspected by a vet to ensure they are disease-free.


Since pigeon fever in horses can be serious, it is essential that you keep your animal protected against it. Be observant of your horses during summer and early fall as this are the periods that the condition appears.

In case you detect any symptoms, quarantine the horse and have a vet attend to it immediately. Because the flies can bring other infections to other livestock, such as mastitis in cows, ensure that you protect your herds by employing efficient preventive measures. Because there is no vaccine, ensure that your animals are kept in safe conditions and the necessary precautions are taken to keep your horse pigeon fever free.

Image: depositphotos.com.

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