• Nick Zacharias

Strangles disease takes hold in Vaudreuil-Soulanges


Recovery from Streptococcus equi, an upper respiratory tract infection commonly known as ‘strangles’ involves anti-inflammatory drugs and drainage of abscess infection, and extended isolation from the rest of the herd.

A highly contagious and sometimes fatal equine disease has taken hold in the region, posing a health threat to horses and bringing serious consequences for their caregivers. The disease, aptly named strangles, causes fever, pain and swelling in the lymph nodes of horses, potentially leading to airway constriction and even death. For stables and owners, a great deal of extra work is demanded as quarantine rules are required, while the risks of animal mortality and loss of revenue loom large.

In a region so rich with equestrian life, this is no small development.

The disease, common elsewhere but new to this area, is caused by a strain of bacteria called Streptococcus equi. It causes an upper respiratory tract infection, the first signs of which are fever and nasal discharge. As the infection grows, horses can develop painful abscesses below the jaw that swell and eventually burst.

Transmission is dauntingly easy. The bacteria are thankfully not airborne, but they are hardy enough to survive for up to 60 days on moist surfaces. That means that everything from brushes to feed troughs to fences and plants can be potential transmission agents. Through decisive action however, the spread of infection locally seems to have been contained.

Heartford Stables in Ste. Marthe, which was hit hard having 10 out of 20 of their horses showing symptoms, has taken extreme measures to ensure that the disease does not leave their grounds.

“We have two barns affected here” says veterinarian Dr. Marylène Bélisle, m.v.

The cost has been high. After first being exposed to strangles through contact with an infected horse from Toronto, the horses at Heartford have been put into rigorous quarantine by owner Émilie Bonnardeaux. Horses at another facility contracted the disease through exposure to a different animal from the U.S., and they are working through similar hardships.

“We have had to pay many thousands of dollars in vet bills,” says Bonnardeaux, “and we have had to purchase new shelters and fences to keep the symptomatic horses isolated. We’ve also hired extra staff to manage the routine of taking temperatures every day, and to make sure the staff and the equipment used for caring for the infected horses are never in contact with the healthy ones.”

Added to that is the cost of lost revenue from having to cancel shows, and from others cancelling boarding or lessons for fear of infection.

To make matters worse, horses that have survived infection can become carriers, and those that come through the infection but are re-exposed later on can develop an even worse variation of the disease, somewhat like humans exposed to chicken pox contracting shingles later in life.

“That’s why we’re making sure that not only are the horses in good health, but they are completely clear of the bacteria” says Bonnardeaux. They are going above and beyond by putting in place a protocol where infected horses, once symptom free, are given a lavage by the vet and two follow-up tests to confirm that they are 100 per cent free of strangles and pose no risk going forward. According to her veterinarian, an outbreak like this is expected somewhere in Quebec once every five years or so, and they are making sure they have done their part not to let the next outbreak come from them. Heartford’s boarders have great praise for their efforts in managing to save every horse from the disease and make sure, once they learned the cause, that no new horses were infected.

“The most important message is that we are safe and our quarantined horses are not a threat to others,” says Bonnardeaux. “With our biosecurity in place, we have had no symptoms now for six weeks, and are waiting for the final confirmation this Tuesday that the herd is now completely free of the infection.”

Going forward, they will be able to return somewhat to business as usual, having learned valuable lessons from the experience. Any new horses that come into the group at the stable will now be treated to a two-week period where they are isolated from the others and can be proven not to be carrying S. equi before they are allowed to mix with any other horses to ensure that strangles does not take hold again.

Heartford Stables has a beautiful facility with a newly constructed indoor arena boasting almost 20,000 square feet, and Émilie and her team are looking forward to the chance to make full use of it with a clean bill of health.