Contagious horse disease hits New Brunswick, cancels equestrian events

1 / 3
Contagious horse disease hits New Brunswick, cancels equestrian events

A highly contagious horse disease called strangles has hit New Brunswick, prompting some equestrian events to be postponed or cancelled to try to prevent it from spreading.

At least one case of the respiratory infection has been confirmed in the province so far, said Dr. Nicole Wanamaker, manager of veterinary services for the Department of Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries.

She declined to reveal the exact location of the infection, saying only south of Fredericton, but did say all horses are at risk.

"We have several other [swab] samples that are being taken now and sent to our provincial laboratory in Fredericton and we're just waiting to hear word on the results," she said. 

Signs to watch for

Strangles is a bacterial infection that can cause excess mucous, cough, and fever in horses, as well as abscess swelling under the jaw and throat, making it difficult for them to chew and swallow.

They may become lethargic and have a reduced appetite.

The infection does not affect people or other animals.

It is spread among horses either by direct nose-to-nose contact, or indirect contact, such a cough or sneeze, feed and water buckets, or a person's hands, clothes, or footwear.

It can take up to two weeks after exposure for an infected — and contagious — horse to exhibit symptoms.

Found in 2 other Maritime provinces

The first case in New Brunswick was confirmed on May 18, according to an advisory on the Department of Agriculture's website.

Cases of strangles have also been reported in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

As a result, Dressage New Brunswick has cancelled an event scheduled to be held in Sussex this weekend and the Hampton Riding Centre has postponed its June 3 horse show until the fall.

"We feel it prudent to minimize travel and contact among horses from varied locations at this time," a notice on the Hampton Riding Centre's website states.

"This decision was not made lightly … but we believe everyone will understand the importance of putting our horses' health and safety first."

'Devastating' effects 

Elizabeth Clark, owner of Butternut Stables in Hampton, believes putting the show off was a wise decision — albeit a difficult one during prime season.

"People invest a lot of blood sweat and tears in their horses and preparing for this time of year … So it's devastating not to be able to go to a show or an event that they've spent months preparing for.

"But in the end, you have to do what's best for the horses."

She, like many horse owners, is "very concerned."

"There's a lot of paranoia, but I do think it's warranted because it's a very severe disease, it's very contagious, and the effects can be devastating."

Clark is following recommended biosecurity measures to keep the more than 30 horses at her stables safe.

"We keep the kind of horses that travel and go to clinics and shows in paddocks that are away from the older and more vulnerable horses," she said.

Anyone who has been in contact with horses off the property is also required to wash their hands and change their clothes, she said.

Other measures recommended by the province include not allowing any new animals on the premises, restricting visitors, monitoring the behaviour and temperature of horses, and isolating any sick horse as soon as possible.

Strangles can be treated with antibiotics and "supportive care," such as softening food to make it easier for the horse to chew and swallow, said Wanamaker.

A small percentage of horses may develop more serious complications, but most will recover within three to four weeks.

Although a preventive vaccine is available, it's not effective during an outbreak. The vaccine is not recommended for pregnant mares because there is no research proving it is safe, she said.