When people ask me what Strangles is I usually get some wild look on my face and then I say, “It’s like the bubonic plague for horses!”
Nasty little bugs they are…
The horse sanctuary where I work was diagnosed with strangles the very day that I started working there and they are still battling it 5 weeks later. When we gave Homer and Troy a better home we didn’t know that Troy was a giant petri dish of S. equi…
Symptoms include high fever, coughing, pus from the nose and eyes, and abscesses in the neck and head regions. The abscesses form in the lymph nodes and, if not treated, they can press on the trachea, pharynx, and larynx causing the horse to, well, strangle. ABSCESSES. Did you hear what I said? Think rotten, stinking, putrid, greenish, yellowish fluid flowing from a horse’s neck. And some of these abscesses are as big as my hand. Sometimes vets will treat the sick horse with a penicillin shot, but so far all of the vets that have been to the farm have had different views on how best to treat this yucky disease.
You know how when you go to the doctor for a flu test they stick a swab up your nose? Well – and I kid you not – when they test for strangles in a horse they stick a swab up their nose that is as long as it is from my elbow to my middle finger. And when you pull it out they snort blood all over you. Yaaaaaay.
But enough about THAT part of the strangles adventure. Let’s talk about the strangles adventure I had during my shift last night.
I was lookin’ all cute in my cuffed jorts and blue t-shirt with the tie on the side. It was a sunny, blazin’ 90 degrees on the ranch and I would be in charge of 46 horses over the next 8 hours BUT I was determined that it was gonna be a great one.* After eyeballing all of the horses in their pastures to make sure we hadn’t lost any I called the boss man to get my starting commands** and he’s like, “Go check on Shine. He’s running around and rubbing his neck on the fence.” Shine. Dear, sweet Shiner. In his glory days Shine was the lead horse in the Calgary rodeo up in Canada. Now Shiner is fully blind and as sweet and gentle as a snail. We call him Shiner because he’s got a giant forehead. We say it’s because he’s got such a big brain.
So I grabbed a halter, a brush, and a handful of apple treats and started giving Shine a once over to see if he’d been stung or something. Seconds after pulling off his fly mask I found an abscess under his neck strap. Oblong. Two inches wide. Maybe as long as my index finger? And squishy. I’m no vet but there was definitely something in there that wanted to come out. Greaaaat. By that time he had already eaten treats from my hand and snuffled all over my shorts and t-shirt. If this kid had strangles then I was most definitely fully contaminated.
I had been at the farm for like half an hour! Within minutes the boss man had made it from the house to Shine’s stall and was commanding Josh (whom I’ll call Muscles because that kid can lift anything. You should see how he just picks up sections of the fence.) to run from the house to the upper barn with a thermometer and surgical gloves. As a recovering germophobe let me explain to you the predicament I was currently in. I had JUST started my shift. Muscles would be leaving in about half an hour. Strangles is spread by mucous so if they sneeze or rub their nose on things then that item becomes contaminated. I put a halter on Shine. Contaminated. I used a brush on Shine. Contaminated. I fed Shine treats and then touched my phone. Contaminated. I touched the gate latch. Contaminated. I picked up my water bottle. Contaminated. I was wearing clothes. Contaminated. I was wearing shoes. Contaminated.
You see where I am going with this?
Strangles tests take FIVE days to come back from the lab. In that amount time the whole herd could become infected. If this horse has strangles then I am in deep doo-doo. I will have to strip in a place where no horse goes. Then shower multiple times. And THEN put on something UNcontaminated and that is only IF I have any clean clothes and shoes in my car. Usually when a horse with strangles needs care the person caring for them dresses in one of those hazmat suits with the booties and gloves. That person in the monkey suit has a spotter to open communally used gates and latches to keep germs contained as much as possible and then the contaminated person has to strip and shower without touching anything.
So there I was. Dumbfounded. Unsure of exactly what to do. I knew I had random items of clothing in my car. Boss man said I could shower in the guest house…but that there was only cold water. I had my spotter lead me to a wash station in one of the dog kennels (dogs don’t get strangles) and I washed up like a surgeon and put on those purple surgical gloves. With my gloved hands I picked around in my car looking for anything decent to wear. I found a pair of shorts that were given to me. Purple. Plaid. And two sizes too small. I also found a pair of socks, a long-sleeved v-neck, a turquoise tank top, and my mom’s hiking boots. Holding them out from my body like the clothes themselves were about to bite me I walked to the guest house and started to strip in a rather un-sanctimonious way.
Have you ever seen an episode of hoarders? Well, that’s exactly what the inside of this guest house looked like. This place could have been stunning, but instead it was piled with junk. There was dirt and bugs and leaves all over the floor. Trash everywhere. It was disturbing. I tiptoed through the house and prayed that I didn’t pick up some OTHER deadly disease from that floor. At this point I’m dripping sweat and thinking that a cold shower won’t be so bad. I mean, I only have to lather and rinse… twice. This won’t be so bad. Wrong. That water was not just cold. That water was straight from a freaking glacier cold. The whole time I was having to do controlled breathing exercises to keep from doing that “freezing-to-death” pant that always happens when you jump into cold water. It really is a wonder that I didn’t get frostbite from that water. Stinking from Dial soap and shivering from that ice pelting I start drying off with the towel I was given. It’s mildewed. Haven’t you people ever heard of bleach?! BAH.
I’m “dry” and dressed. I’m literally spilling out of these pants and I’m having trouble bending over. I chose the long-sleeved v-neck because of sunburn. Donned a baseball cap backwards to help shield my neck. Wrapped the tank top around head to catch the sweat drips. I am a sight to behold. It’s a good thing the vet tech was the only one that had to behold me all evening! Rule of thumb: Keep a full set of clothes in your car at all times. You never know when you might become contaminated with an enzootic disease and be forced to wear whatever is in your car. Believe me, that candy wrapper won’t cover much. I think Miley Cyrus already tried that one.
The vet examined Shiner last night, but only time will tell if he really does have another case of strangles. Until then he’ll be in quarantine and we’ll be praying like crazy that the spreading stops.
Peace, love, and pus? No, that’s gross!
P.S. And just in case anyone wonders why each new horse isn’t quarantined before it’s put with the herd… They are. But strangles is considered quite rare and the “safe” period can be 6 or more weeks which is much longer that the incubation period for many horse diseases. There ARE vaccinations but they are said to be only about 50% effective and the vets say they often do more harm than good. SO it’s just a storm we have to ride out the best that we can.
*By the way, I work a 2-10:00 p.m. shift on the ranch
**The boss man’s house is down in the valley below the ranch and we keep in constant contact with him (via radios) throughout the day