Strangles in Horses 101: Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention

Strangles is a very contagious bacterial infection brought about by Streptococcus equi. It is usually transmitted either by horse-to-horse, humans-to-horse, or through the drinking troughs that are contaminated with nasal discharge or pus from infected horses. If a horse gets exposed to the bacteria, its immunity goes down as time goes by.

When strangles attack a barn, it can end up getting shut down weeks on end since a quarantine is needed to avoid the spreading of the bacteria. Usually, strangles in horses is not fatal and most animals recover completely. However, there are occasional cases where its complications can lead to death. When it comes to preventing and treating strangles, hygiene and vigilance are paramount.


Symptoms of Strangles in Horses

It takes just a few days from when a horse gets infected for the symptoms to be evident. Infected horses will keep away from their feeds. Other strangles in horses symptoms include:

  • A rapid rise in temperature of 39.4 to 41.1°C. The normal horse’s temperature is 36.9 to 38.3°C. It is important to check your horse’s temperature regularly to determine whether it is normal or not.
  • A wet cough with labored breathing. The normal clear mucous tends to turn yellowish or green. When you notice thicker and colored mucous, it is not normal and your horse should be checked.
  • Swellings – you will notice swelling between the lower jaw bones. The swelling can occupy the entire area at the back of the cheekbone down to the sides of its faces. This swelling tends to become very hard and might even rupture. It leads to the obstruction of the horse’s breathing, thus the name strangles. A horse will also have noisy breathing.
  • Difficulty swallowing – the horse will struggle to swallow its food and eventually decide to stay away from it altogether.


There exist some three complications that could turn out fatal like in the following instances:

  1. Purpura hemorrhagic. This is a condition where blood vessels become inflamed and usually occurs when the horse is recovering. It causes edema or swelling of the legs, head, or other areas.
  2. Bastard strangles. This happens when the infection spreads to other places in the body, including brain, lungs, or stomach. The condition leads to the lymph nodes in those areas rupturing, which is fatal.
  3. Chronic carrier status. Some horses carry strangles in their guttural pouch for months after recovering from it. Though such horses seem healthy, they continue to shed the bacteria from their nasal discharges exposing other healthy animals to this disease.

Other problems that might occur with strangles in horses include swelling of the heart muscle, paralysis of the throat, causing roaring, swelling of the tissue, and anemia. These symptoms are sometimes not fatal.

Treatment for Strangles in Horses

The only treatment for strangles in horses is total rest and nursing care. You should monitor the animal and ensure they can breathe. Antibiotics are not recommended for treating strangles unless in severe cases. This is because they cause abscesses to move to the other body parts, leading to bastard strangles.


  1. Intramuscular vaccines. They produce circulating antibodies but do not necessarily protect from strangles in horses since they don’t generally offer any antibody protection where it is most needed- at the respiratory lining level. Horses that have had high levels of circulating antibodies before getting exposed to the bacteria can get purpura hemorrhagica reactions after vaccination. They can also get intense reactions at the site of the vaccination.

    Due to their many side effects and minimal protection, these vaccines are no longer used for strangles in horses. They are, however, recommended for broodmares that are close to giving birth in situations considered high-risk as they emit enough antibody levels in their milk, which can help the young ones.

  2. The intranasal vaccine. These use live bacteria that have been altered to make them safer. They offer higher protection, imitate an actual infection, but with fewer symptoms.

You can vaccinate your horses for strangles but not during an outbreak. This vaccine lasts for only 6 to 12 months and you must give it regularly to ensure you maintain coverage. The downside is that vaccines for strangles in horses are not fool-proof. Half of the vaccinated horses will eventually get sick if exposed to the bacteria.


Not every exposed horse will end up contracting the disease. However, the more frequently a horse gets exposed, the more likely it will get sick.

Horses and foals that are under stress are more prone to getting infected if exposed to these bacteria. They can get stress from ill health, poor nutrition, and long transportation.

Applying hot compresses can help soften inflamed lymph nodes, which will make abscess drainage quicker. For those abscesses that are so large that they cause difficulty in breathing, they can get lanced with the help of a veterinary.

If the horse is willing to cooperate, you can clean draining abscesses with dilute antiseptic washes that hastens the skin healing process as well as avoiding secondary infections.

How to Lower the Risk of Strangles

  • If you suspect that one of your horses has strangles, quarantine it to avoid the spreading of the disease;
  • Whenever you buy a new horse, it is advisable to keep it separate to ensure it doesn’t have any disease that it might pass on to other animals;
  • Clean anything that comes into contact with a sick horse, including water and feed bucket, blankets, brushes, and your hands;
  • Complicated cases will require intensive antibiotic therapy from a veterinary to help save the animal’s life;
  • Vaccinate your horse for strangles- there are two types of vaccines, including intramuscular injection and intranasal;
  • If you notice that a horse has high temperature, difficulty in swallowing, nasal discharge, or has swollen glands, you should have its guttural pouch or throat swabbed and diagnosed for Streptococcus equi bacteria;
  • Refrain from using public troughs whenever possible;
  • Reduce direct contact with other horses during events;
  • When traveling long distances with horses, allow frequent stops so that the horses can rest;
  • Wash your hands regularly when at events;

A Last Word of Caution

After an outbreak, take not less than three samples from the horse’s nasal wash or a swab from all those horses that are recovering and any other horse that might have come into contact with them. Even the healthy-looking horses should be checked for guttural pouch endoscopy.


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