View Full Version : Pigeon Fever: Any Experiences With It?

Jul. 22, 2011, 05:05 PM
We thought this was a mainly a west coast thing but recently 5 cases have arisen within 3 square miles of our farm. Any idea where it comes from, how it is transmitted, how infectious it is, etc.? We live in south Louisiana, where is is normally hot and wet but we are in a drought this summer - could that make a difference? Any tips for protecting our horses? Also, I'd appreciate any experiences any of you may have had that I can pass along to the unfortunate folks dealing with it down here. Thanks.

Jul. 22, 2011, 06:35 PM
No experience, but found this from Colorado State University around 2002


Toadie's mom
Jul. 22, 2011, 08:14 PM
You should probably move this to the
horse care forum, but here's another good article http://quarterhorsenews.com/index.php/news/other-news/8847-what-is-pigeon-fever-in-horses.html
I'd only heard about it from a friend in AZ., until this year. I now know of 3 cases within 10 miles of me.

Jul. 23, 2011, 02:26 AM
Being from the west coast, and in an area where there are outbreaks pretty much every summer (and have had one on my farm a few years back) I'll offer what I can.

I was told by one of my vets was the first cases found west of the rockies happened last year and you can thank climate change for that. The microbe needs hot, dry soil to survive, and the normally higher humidity and moisture has previously protected you.

Pigeon fever is gross and annoying, but it is usually not a huge deal. They get basically a giant pus pocket (usually on the chest or midline, though it can be anywhere) that in most cases will burst and drain on it's own. In some cases, it reaches a size and level of discomfort for the horse that the best course of action is to lance it, and holy schnikes it is like something out of a horror movie. Holy fountains of bloody pus, Batman. The pus pockets are very uncomfortable to the horse until they burst, then don't bother them at all, similar to a hoof abcess.

Where it can be more serious, is when they get a pus pocket (or series of them) internally, and they can form a hard crust inside the body. The hard shelled pus pockets can press on vital structures and either (a) damage the structure, like the heart or trachea, leading to death, or (b) burst inside the body cavity, causing septicimia.

Transmission is via flies via broken skin, and can be between horses (fly lands on pus on infected horse, then lands on open skin of other horse, and horse #2 gets it.) The pus pockets are most often found on the midline, because midline dermatitus is the most common manner of transmission. However, and here's where it gets tricky, the microbe can live in hot, dry soil almost indefinitely (Thus the alternate name dryland distemper). So, for instance, you can be years or even decades after an outbreak, and disturbed soil will release the microbe, which can then get on flies, staring things up again. (My vet says when he sees a new vineyard or building going in he knows he'll be seeing outbreaks on the adjoining farms soon.)

Also, this is a disease of cattle, sheep, etc. also, but the microbe isn't exactly the same (those species have a vaccine, horses don't). However, it is common for both microbes to live together, so, if you buy, say an old cattle farm, and plow in a new ring, you might have outbreaks.

When I had the outbreak at my farm, it was during a summer where there were over 3,000 cases in my county. It was brought to my farm by a young horse shipping from an infected barn. I wasn't informed of the outbreak until after the fact.

Of the 25 plus equines on my farm, approximately 15 of them caught it. Of those fifteen, 11 of the grew a pus pocket, popped it, and returned to work within a week.Of the remaining four, two took an additional week to pop.

One mare had a HUGE one, that ultimately had to be lanced because she could barely walk. We had to wait to lance it until the consistency had changed from hard to soft. It was an, um, memorable experience. I'm not a remotely squeamish person, but yikes, that was a lot of pus. Fountaining. Like three feet out of her chest.

The final horse was the original carrier monkey, so to speak, the youngster that brought it to my farm. From the beginning she had a very messy case, that started with multiple pockets all along her midline, and chest. She'd pop one, and four more would pop up. She became lamer, and lamer, until she was broken leg, foot dragging lame. It was then determined that she had two internal pus pockets directly behind and underneath her shoulder blades. She had emergency surgery in the barn aisle to install drains in to the pockets, as the were beginning to press on the nerves inside her shoulder. They had the hard shell, and the vet had to use a hammer to drive a drain in to the pockets.

She had a track the went basically from her armpit about eight inches in the body parallel to the blade. Four times a day I had to install drains in the track, and flush aggressively with dilute betadine. At each flushing copious pus would come out. It was seriously, seriously, gross. There was also that fun moment as the vet got ready to make the incision and said to the owner, "We just need to be clear. If this goes wrong I'm going to sever the tendon to the front leg and she'll never walk again." Awesome.

She too made a full recovery. But she was sick about 4 months.

Some people get very worked up about pigeon fever, to the point of horses coming down with it being quarantined to their stalls, not even being allowed out to handwalk, etc. For me personally, I chose to not get that worked up. My vet pointed out that flies can move easily in and out of stalls, and even if you had a quarantine barn, it would need to be over a mile away from the rest of your horses to dissuade a fly. We had a pair of coverall for treating the sick horses, and I scrubbed my wash rack with bleach solution after each treatment. But, there's wasn't much I could do about the flight path of a fly. After the outbreak was over, I also bleached my entires barn and aisle.

I found no rhyme or reason to the spread of the infection--in one pasture I had one horse of four get it, and the others never did. And I had one horse who was basically in solitary confinement (end stall, solo turnout, no touching other horses) who did get it.

Treatment really consisted of supportive care. Hot compresses twice a day while the puss pockets were forming. Flushing them out with dilute betadine after they had popped. Antibiotics were contra indicated as it is felt they contribute to the formation of the more dangerous internal pus pockets.

Since I have had it here, there is always the chance we could have another outbreak. But it's been four years, and with the insane amount of moisture we've had this year, and the lack of construction projects, we should be fine.

There are some people who get really worked up about this disease. Needlessly so. The main inconveniance is that the ethical thing is to stop movement from a farm having an outbreak. But statistically, your horses will be fine. The more serious internal cases are still very rare.

Whoo, what a novel. If you have any other question please let me know.

Jul. 23, 2011, 07:25 AM
PhoenixFarm, eeeeekkkk! That sounds terrible.

In the 10+ years I have lived in California and boarded at large show barns, I've only seen three cases. All were in horses under 6, and weather didn't seem to play a big part... 2 were in the summer while it was hot and dry, but the other came up in April during a very wet spring (a young horse I purchased once the pigeon fever had run it's course).

The first two stayed in the "general population" until it looked like the abscess was a week or so from being ready to burst, then they were taken to some kind of quarantine facility. The other was kept isolated for reasons beyond me, but allowed to have play time in the round-pen, which of course is where the abscess burst. I missed seeing that, but even the aftermath was disgusting- I could actually get two fingers in the hole where it burst, and there was a giant pocket behind it. Flushed it once a day, and kept it covered in nolvasan ointment. Vet gave the ok to move him home without risking contagion once the hole had granulated and formed a scab, which took maybe 1.5-2 weeks after the abscess burst.

The barn owner, an old cowboy, swore up and down that once the first one burst, another one would pop up, and so on, as that is how it had almost always happened with his cases. Fortunately, it was just that one giant abscess with no recurrence. The prior owner did have him on Immunal supplement and a custom blend of vitamins, which couldn't have hurt, and his case certainly was less complicated than the dire warning of old cowboys and vets.

Jul. 23, 2011, 09:07 AM
Thanks, PhoenixFarm, for all the info. Now that we are getting back into our normal rain pattern hopefully we can avoid the nastiness.

I did finally go to the horse care forum and found some helpful info there as well. I don't know why I didn't think of that in the beginning.

Thanks also for the links to the studies. This is something I'd really like to avoid but it sounds mostly gross and not life threatening. I guess that's good news.

Jul. 23, 2011, 09:33 AM
When we had an outbreak at my boarding barn, our vet said that the biggest thing you can do to help keep your horse from getting it was to try to keep flies off of them. She suggested fly sheets and fly spray, and also mentioned that the biggest spot to watch was the one under their bellies where they sometimes get the sores from flies, as that was a major point of transmission for it. We had two cases at our barn (neither of my horses got it).

Watermark Farm
Jul. 23, 2011, 08:16 PM
I'm in the land of Pigeon Fever, and a couple of years ago it ran through my barn. Half the horses got it. One horse got the internal version and survived against the odds. In general, it's a nuisance and a hassle. It's very common out here and no one loses sleep over it. Some horses breeze through it overnight; for others it takes weeks to run its course. UC Davis would be your best source of info on it.

All of the horses who had chronic belly sores from flies got pigeon fever. This is a major source for transmission!

Sooo....SWAT those fly sores on the belly and use fly spray. And don't worry.

Jul. 24, 2011, 09:55 AM
Phoenix Farm thanks for sharing your experience.

Also, I see a really good gross-out/horror movie in that.

Jul. 24, 2011, 10:36 AM
And you left out the smell and the sound effects, too. :eek:

I think there is now something positive to be said for humidity. Va. in this heat wave isn't fun, but I guess Golden California has its climate drawbacks, too.

Thank you for the detailed memorable description.