Strangles in horses

By Abby Meidell

What are Strangles?

Strangles (also equine distemper) is a contagious upper respiratory tract infection of horses and other equines caused by a bacterium, Streptococcus equi var. equi.

(The reason it was named strangles because horses often strangled from enlarged lymph nodes that obstruct the air way.)

Symptoms of Strangles

  • sudden fever
  • nasal discharge that starts out watery but soon becomes thick and sticky with mucus and pus
  • depression, difficulty swallowing and/or standing with neck outstretched, lack of appetite
  • about a week after infection: acute swelling in the lymph nodes between the jaw bones and at the back of the throat, and possibly swelling in other lymph nodes as well
Strangles in Horses

Morkel Piennaar talks about strangles in horses.


Treatment of strangles depends upon the stage of the disease and is multifactoral. The main treatment for horses is supportive care. Fevers are controlled by anti-inflammatory drugs. Enlarged lymph nodes are hot packed daily to speed up maturation and drainage of abscesses. Penicillin (antibiotic) is used in some horses depending upon where the horse is in the course of the disease. Treatment with penicillin in horses that have enlarged lymph nodes will decrease clinical signs of the disease, but once the penicillin is stopped the disease is maintained until the lymph nodes go on to abscess and drain. Usually penicillin is saved for horses that have a fever but show no signs of lymph nodes enlargement or in complicated cases where the life of the horses is threatened.

Ways to prevent!

Really the only way to prevent your horse from getting this disease is by keeping them away from other horses, such as the neighbors, or taking them to any public event with other horses involved. Strangles is easily contracted and very contagious to any other horse in the area. If one of your horses does contract the virus then remove them from the rest of the herd as quickly as possible as to prevent the spread of the virus. Strangles can be a deadly virus so if you see the symptoms of this virus be sure to contact your vet as soon as possible. There is no way to treat you horse once they have Strangles, but they should develop a abscess which can then be lanced by you Veterinarian. After draining the puss out of abscess the swelling should go down in their lymph nodes. 75% of horses are immune to the virus after they have had it once, some can get it a few months after they had it the first time. There are vaccines for the virus, however they can result in abscesses where they were administered.