I had purchased a yearling filly sight unseen and had her delivered to my home. She looked to be in good health when unloaded from the trailer, but I put her in a separate pen away from the others as a safety precaution. The next day she wasn't looking very chipper after all. Sure enough she was in the first stage of the very contagious equine disease Distemper (Strangles). Sure enough, separate pen with no contact with the rest or not, my horses started to all get Strangles. None were so sick that they needed treatment, as I have long followed the advice to just let Strangles run its course unless the animal is desperately ill with it. They were an unhappy bunch with their swollen glands under the jaw but were breaking and draining without assistance. Only my 20 year old mare, Lady showed no signs of having contacted the disease. Perhaps she had it before I purchased her and had built natural immunity to it.

Just before dark I did a final check on the horses for the day. I found Lady far from the herd, sitting like a dog. She was in terrible distress and the ground around her was torn up from her struggling. Finding a horse in this unnatural position is a desperate situation. I phoned the closest vet to come right away. He diagnosed her from across the pasture. She had coliced and had a ruptured stomach and/or bowel and should be destroyed immediately as she could not survive this condition. I was well aware of horses found in this position (sitting like a dog), and that usually that is what has happened. but I tried to explain to him, that she had not coliced, that all the rest were sick with Strangles, could she have Bastard Strangles that was causing her pain and the position she was in? He repeated to me that was his diagnosis and either he could destroy the mare for me or I could shoot her myself as he had no intention of trying to treat a horse already dead on its feet.
Old Lady did not deserve to suffer. But she did deserve a proper examination before pulling the trigger. I told the Vet to be kind enough to give her a high dose of pain killer and another dose for me to give to her later on the long road to the University of Saskatoon, the only facility who may be able to save her if at all possible. He grudgingly agreed. With in minutes, the pain was masked by the drug and she was able to stand. Still her heart rate was to high for her to keep going much longer. I loaded her and headed down the long highway, without even stopping long enough to change my cloths or brush my hair.
I cannot ever say enough about the Veterinarian staff at the University. After arriving, they quickly confirmed a serious internal case of Bastard Strangles. They agreed to try and save her but gave the chances of doing so at next to zero. First was to try to get her pulse (heart rate) back down to an acceptable level, they gave themselves only a couple of hours to do so. And they succeeded. The battle for her life was just beginning. She would be kept drugged so she would be free of pain. It was a long up hill battle for several days. For days they never left her stall, fighting with all their knowledge for this grand old mare. And she did survive, in fact although heavy in foal throughout this ordeal, she never lost the foal. His name is Zeke and a beauty to behold. Had I not insisted on a second opinion so long ago, two horses would have died that day, not just one.


Strangles, also known as Distemper, is an acute contagious disease of equines. It is characterized by fever, a catarrhal inflammation of the nasal cavities and throat, and the development of abscesses in the lymph glands, especially between the branches of the lower jaw. Although a disease of young horses, horses of all ages can contact it. It is believed that once a horse has had the disease, they build immunity to it and may be safe from getting it again. There are vaccinations available on the market for it, none being proven to be 100% effective. Generally the glands become so tight, enlarged and swollen that they burst and drain a thick pus. Immediately the horses temperature should then come down, it can eat and drink again without discomfort and recovery is final in from two to four weeks. A Vet should be called in and treatment started immediately if the horse has such a severe case that death may happen or if the swollen glands do not break on their own. It is recommended that all horse owners who are not experienced with Strangles, follow a Vets advice from the first recognizable signs. It is wise to never give small doses of Penicillin for only a short time, instead large doses over an extended period of time. No treatment is far better than inadequate treatment. Not enough for long enough may result in Bastard Strangles so beware of half hearted treatment.
Bastard Strangles can be far more deadly to a horse, with the mortality rate going from the original 2% to as high as 75%. In these cases, abscesses form in other parts of the body, particularly of the lymph nodes in the abdomen and less frequently the thorax. Rupture of these abscesses causes purulent Peritonitis and Pleuritis, the causes of the high mortality rate.

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