What do you know about Strangles? New report reveals owner misconceptions

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Position of lymph nodes and guttural pouches which are the anatomy affected by strangles.
Position of lymph nodes and guttural pouches which are affected by Strangles. © Redwings

A British equine charity has released a new report on the contagious disease Strangles, revealing several misconceptions and shortcomings in dealing with the disease.

Some 36% of the 5000 who responded to the survey by Redwings thought that Strangles was ‘an airborne disease like flu’, whereas it is actually spread through direct contact with an infected animal or infected material.

Redwings believes such misconceptions hampers owners’ perception of being able to prevent the disease. It was also revealed that few livery yards routinely screened new arrivals, but horse owners said they would support such biosecurity measures if they were introduced.

A thick yellow nasal discharge is one of the symptoms of Strangles.
A thick yellow nasal discharge is one of the symptoms of Strangles. © Redwings

Strangles is the most commonly diagnosed contagious disease in horses in the UK with an average of 600 outbreaks a year.

Strangles causes a nasty infection of the upper respiratory tract that causes symptoms such as swelling of the throat, which gives the disease its name. In rare cases it can be fatal.

Some 10% of horses infected become ‘carriers’ of the disease. This means that despite showing no symptoms they can still cause outbreaks in the future. Preventing sufferers from becoming carriers, as well as identifying and treating carriers, is the key to stopping the disease in its tracks.


Strangles – what are the symptoms?

Early signs could be any one of the following:

The effects of Strangles
The effects of Strangles.

• Sore throat – shown by loss of appetite, difficulty eating, or difficulty extending the head
• Lymph node swelling (area where head and neck join)
• Depression
• Fever (temperature above 38.5C)
• A cough

Advanced signs:
• Thick yellow nasal discharge
• Abscesses on the side of the head, on the throat, or under the jaw

Atypical Strangles symptoms
• Mild short term fever
• Mild clear nasal discharge
• No abscess formation

It’s important to know your horse’s vital signs (temperature, pulse, respiration rate) to help spot when something is wrong.


Redwings’ 2016 Strangles Survey, developed in collaboration with the University of Liverpool, attracted almost 5000 respondents, with 2002 completing the survey of more than 60 questions in full.

More than 90% of respondents believed strangles should be more of a priority in Britain and, indeed, among the horse owners that took part understanding of the disease and awareness of the symptoms were good with 92.5% correctly identifying fever and 96.0% identifying the classic (albeit later) nasal discharge as clinical signs of strangles. Further, 43% of respondents had personal experience of Strangles; 46.1% of whom reported the case was confirmed by a vet.

Abscesses on the side of the head, on the throat, or under the jaw are advanced signs of strangles.
Abscesses on the side of the head, on the throat, or under the jaw are advanced signs of Strangles. © Redwings

Despite this awareness and eagerness for strangles to be a priority, only 13% of respondents who kept their horses at a livery yard had their horse screened for Strangles on arrival and 74.8% said their yard did not have a screening protocol for new arrivals at all.

Nearly 80% of respondents said they would be prepared to prove their horse was not a ‘silent carrier’ (that is, carrying the disease without showing any clinical symptoms either as a result of previous infection or contact with another infected horse) by paying for screening should their yard introduce biosecurity measures.

Strangles mucus is viscous and can be difficult to remove. Lab-based investigation suggests it can live in the external environment for over a month.
Strangles mucus is viscous and can be difficult to remove. Lab-based investigation suggests it can live in the external environment for more than a month. © Redwings

During scenario-style questions, the responses from those who did not have previous experience of Strangles veered towards the more pessimistic – the attitude largely being that strangles is a ‘life-threatening disease’ and something that was ‘difficult to treat’. Those with experience of the disease tended to be more pragmatic about its prevention and management.

However, even when taken as a whole, a large proportion of respondents felt that ‘it was not possible’ to eradicate Strangles in the UK – 35.5% party agreed and 13.8% completely agreed with this statement. And worryingly, 16.6% respondents said one of the ‘main reasons’ they do not take more steps to prevent strangles was because they believed it ‘is not possible to prevent Strangles/it is just something that happens’.

“It is not only Strangles that we need to stamp out,” said survey pioneer and Redwings’ Education and Campaigns Manager Andie Vilela, “but the attitudes and perceptions towards the disease that prevent or undermine motivation for horse owners to act.

“Nonetheless, the number of people willing to take part in this survey and the fact that 43% respondents reported experience of Strangles is incredibly encouraging and shows that owners are willing to speak out – something we at Redwings believe essential to remove the stigma surrounding the disease.

A horse with strangles showing lymph node swelling.
A horse with strangles showing lymph node swelling. © Redwings

“With this valuable data, I have real confidence in the next stage of our ‘Stamp out strangles’ campaign to make real progress by increasing owner awareness, improving biosecurity measures and eradicating the disease among the UK horse population. I believe the key to achieve this is more screening on yards and for carriers to be cleared of the disease.”

The survey was launched in April 2016 as part of the charity’s ‘Stamp out strangles’ campaign and was inspired, in part, by its own Strangles outbreak in February 2015; when 30 horses tested positive for Strangles, many more horses required testing and thousands of pounds was spent in an eight-month battle with the disease.

This was the first time in 23 years that the Sanctuary had an outbreak in one of its resident herds, and the charity felt it essential to speak out immediately.

Eager to encourage others to #SpeakOutOnStrangles, Redwings launched their 2016 Strangles Survey to gauge horse owners’ perceptions of the disease and whether they are equipped to deal with an outbreak situation of their own.

Redwings’ Strangles survey was developed with the support of Dr Claire Scantlebury at the University of Liverpool, and Dr Jo Ireland at The Animal Health Trust.

 

Redwings’ free strangles information and prevention pack “Strangles – speak out!” for yards and horse owners is available for download. Hard copies, including quarantine posters, are available by emailing education@redwings.co.uk.

 

The main report from the survey is available to view here.

 

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