Lothians fight to stop equine distemper ‘epidemic’

Matt Hanks blames poor practice for the spread
Matt Hanks blames poor practice for the spread
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FARMS and stables across the Lothians are fighting to contain an “epidemic” of equine distemper, it has emerged.

Up to 25 sites in the region are understood to have been hit by the potentially fatal 
respiratory disease – commonly known as “Strangles” because it causes a swelling of the lymph glands that can 
suffocate its victim.

Vets and animal welfare officers said they were aware of an outbreak that began around six months ago and was continuing to “rumble on” due to the highly contagious nature of the illness, which is also spread by humans who accidentally get horse mucus on their clothes and then touch other animals.

Matt Hanks, lecturer and clinician at the Royal Dick Vet School equine practice, said: “The disease is endemic – because of poor surveillance and also practice by some vets and horse owners, it’s been allowed to perpetuate throughout the horse population.”

An upper respiratory tract infection caused by the streptococcus bacterium, Strangles spreads quickly when sick horses nuzzle healthy animals or share their water buckets and feeding troughs.

Mr Hanks said he had encountered the disease on eight yards, with more than 50 horses infected, since the start of the most recent outbreak.

“It began autumn last year and has moved around,” he said.

“It’s what we would call an epidemic – the incidence is above what you’d normally expect.

“You have a lot more yards affected than usual. Once people see a diseased horse, they do something about it but we’re not getting to grips with the spread between yards.”

Iain Butt, of Gorebridge and Loanhead-based ICR Butt and Partners vet surgeons, said: “Strangles is a dirty disease and a complicated disease – basically, a horse has to be contained and cannot go anywhere until it can be proven to be a non-carrier.

“It’s the carrier horses which are now the main concern. Establishing a horse is clear of the disease can take up to six weeks after the last signs have disappeared to make sure the disease is not lingering.

“You have to put a scope up the horse and take a swab from the back of the throat to check for any signs of infection.

“Only if those are clear can you be certain that the horse is clear of the disease, but it’s not an easy, five-minute job – it can take weeks.”

Welfare officers at the Scottish SPCA said they were aware of the outbreak and on standby to assist affected horse owners.

Chief Inspector Paul Anderson said: “This is predominantly a matter for the owners of horses affected and their vets. We would only become involved where appropriate action was not being taken to manage the condition, resulting in a horse being caused unnecessary suffering and its welfare being compromised.”

Isolation vital

STRANGLES, or equine distemper, is a respiratory tract infection caused by the Streptococcus equi var equi bacterium.

It is spread when nasal discharge or pus from a draining abscess contaminates pastures, barns and feeding troughs.

Symptoms include fever, heavy nasal discharge, and swollen or enlarged lymph nodes in the neck.

Although deaths are rare, it is very contagious and an isolation period of six weeks is necessary to ensure it is not incubating even after symptoms clear.