Pigeon fever is known as Dryland or Equine Distemper. If your horse gets pigeon fever you will notice them walking stiffly with swelling on the front of the chest or it may be along the underside of the belly, but can also be on the upper body.
It is called pigeon fever because it looks like the protruding chest of a pigeon. If the horse contracts this disease it will remind you of strangles because of the abscesses. It is a contagious bacterial infection that is also seen in sheep, goats and cattle.
Horses can't get Pigeon Fever from sheep or goats, but they can get the disease from cattle. Don't worry as it is not transmitted to humans.
The range of symptoms vary with Pigeon Fever from fever, weight loss, to your horse being lethargic. The severity of the symptoms are different in each horse and will depend on their age, how healthy their immune system is and the type of nutrition they are getting.
It lives in the ground and is transmitted through the air into cuts or open abrasions. It can survive up to two months in bedding and more than eight months in the soil. The main carriers that spread the disease are flies so quarantine of the infected horse is not effective. Controlling the flies is your best form of defense and will help to minimize the spread of Pigeon Fever.
Horses with Pigeon Fever are not usually treated with antibiotics as most horses are left alone to let it run its course unless they are not eating and drinking or the abscesses are internal. For the abscesses heat packs or drawing salves can be applied to help draw the abscess to the surface. In some cases the abscess may be surgically drained. Keep in mind the pus may spread the disease to the other horses.
Once the abscess breaks open it will usually drain for one or two weeks. Be sure to keep the abscess clean along with the stall area. Any equipment you use on the infected horse such as brushes, blankets, hoof picks will need to be disinfected. Don't use the same barn tools (rakes, manure forks and carts) with the non-infected horses.
Pigeon Fever is called Dry Land Distemper because it is common in the dry areas such as Arizona, New Mexico and California and is more prevalent when drought conditions exist. Pigeon fever has been increasing over several states and is showing up in places where it's never been seen before.
Always consult your veterinarian if you suspect Pigeon Fever. If you have several horses always handle the infected horse/s last to avoid spreading it to the other horses.