NEW ORLEANS Agriculture officials in Arkansas and Louisiana have warned veterinarians to watch for signs of a potentially fatal horse disease if there’s another drought this year.
The disease is often called pigeon fever because basketball-sized abscesses in the chest and abdomen can give horses a pigeon-breasted look. It’s also referred to as dry-land strangles, as cases seem to spike in dry weather.
The disease has been reported in at least a dozen states in the past decade. Louisiana usually has fewer than three cases per year, but the state veterinary lab confirmed 33 during last year’s drought, said Sam Irwin, spokesman for the Department of Agriculture and Forestry. And, from what veterinarians have told her, the number may be far greater — perhaps as many as 300, Louisiana State University veterinarian Rebecca S. McConnico said.
Horse owners such as Kathryn Loewer, who gives riding lessons, runs horsemanship camps, sponsors a youth drill team and boards horses at Soaring Spirit Ranch near Crowley, don’t always spend the money to have the state lab confirm their animals’ diagnoses.
“The treatment wasn’t going to be any different,” Loewer said.
Mark Russell, an equine specialist at the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, said he’d heard of about a dozen cases in Arkansas, and there could have been more. “No one, that I could tell, had a lot of experience with treating it,” he said.
Experts say about 3 percent of infected horses develop internal abscesses, which are fatal if left untreated and often fatal even with treatment. External abscesses are more common but almost never lethal, although treatment can be messy.
The abscesses’ thick walls defy antibiotics, so the best treatment is having them lanced and drained by a veterinarian and then washing them out regularly with an antiseptic, McConnico said. The disease also can show up as inflammation and a line of sores and bumps in a horse’s leg and a series of small, painful pimples spread by contaminated blankets, grooming equipment, saddles and harnesses.
It’s not clear whether the bacteria that causes the disease is spreading or whether it’s in dirt all over and hot, dry weather just increases the opportunity for infection.
Brian Miller, a veterinarian who teaches at Colorado State University and runs its Equine Field Service, thinks it’s probably everywhere and outbreaks increase when dry weather turns the ground to dust that carries the bacteria into scratches and other small wounds. Once a horse develops abscesses, the disease can be spread by flies landing on the infected areas and then carrying the bacteria to other animals, he and others said.