Seems like Tucson’s hot, dry June weather may have set up the perfect conditions for an early outbreak of Pigeon Fever.
One of the local vet clinics is reporting an early case of the condition, also known as Dryland Distemper, one of the more insidious infectious diseases that affect horses primarily in the western and southwestern states. Pigeon Fever is caused by the pseudotuberculosis bacterium, which lives in the ground in places like Arizona, California and Texas and seems to be able to exist in harsh conditions for months or even years.
The disease often causes one or more large abscesses on the horse’s chest (hence the nickname), though it can also show up on the belly, ventral midline, sheath/udder and legs.
One of the challenges facing horse owners is that the disease can be transmitted so many different ways: by direct contact with an infected horse with a draining abscess, by exposing open sores to dirt or bedding containing the bacterium or via flies carrying the infection horse to horse. (There’s even some concern that humans could be infected.)
The American Academy of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) has recently released new guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of Pigeon Fever, which should not be confused with Strangles, another common bacterial infection that often manifests as abscessed lymph nodes at the throatlatch.
The two conditions are similar in that both have variations that can move deeper into the body, affecting the internal organs. Indeed, some veterinarians and researchers caution against use of antibiotics to treat the more superficial versions of both Pigeon Fever and Strangles lest the treatment prolonging the infection by preventing abscesses from running their course.
While there are vaccines against the Strangles bacterium, Streptococcus equi, none exists to address Pigeon Fever. Prevent infections by supporting your horse’s immune system, doing what you can to control flies and mosquitoes and taking sensible precautions should a horse at your barn become ill. Here’s one credible source suggesting a simple nutritional change to improve horses’ ability to withstand the condition.
I’m not a veterinarian and I do not give medical advice, but I have successfully used a holistic approach to support a horse through a Pigeon Fever infection. If your horse presents with Pigeon Fever symptoms, there are a number of ways to address abscesses holistically, without using antibiotics.
I used a simple protocol of homeopathic remedies specific to abscesses and applied warm compresses to the affected area several times a day to bring the abscess to a head. This allowed it to rupture on its own without need for lancing. I included a few drops of tea tree oil in the water I used for the compress to help draw the abscess to the surface faster. (You could also use a poultice of slippery elm or clay like you would for a hoof abscess to help this process.)
I also put tea tree oil in the solution I used to flush the open wound after the abscess burst. The opening in the horse’s pectoral muscle was about the size of my fist and I chose not to use the traditional diluted betadine, opting for something I felt would be more effective at fighting off secondary infection and more likely to encourage formulation of healthy granulation tissue.
The horse also got vitamins E and C and echinacea, both in herb and homeopathic forms, to support and strengthen his immune system. He recovered fully with no disfigurement – not even a scar – and had no recurrence of the disease even though other horses on the same property were afflicted in subsequent years.