Pigeon Fever In Horses – Mystery Swelling On Horse Identified
Several weeks ago I noticed that my 3-1/2 year old Arabian mare was moving very stiffly and appeared to be very sore. At first glance it looked like her feet were sore or perhaps she had a stone bruise. I checked her feet, found nothing, and just decided to keep an eye on her. The stiffness persisted and got worse. Thoughts of laminitis and founder started flitting through my head. I checked her feet and legs again and could find nothing out of the ordinary.
Day 2 – By the end of the second day, she wouldn’t even come away from the hay bale to come up to the barn for her evening grain. She had apparently been spending her entire day there. This was very distressing, as she was typically one of the first horses to arrive at the barn for her end of the day scratch and feed.
I went to go and bring her in, and that’s when I noticed the very large swelling on her right pectoral muscle. I had placed my hand on it while rubbing down her neck and shoulder in greeting. It was extremely hot to the touch and hard as a rock. My first thought was a snake bite, but that was highly unlikely and I could find no puncture wounds of any kind.
The next likely scenario was that Tex, one of our geldings, had kicked her. He picked on her unmercifully and often and had been known to back her into a corner of the pole barn and kick at her. It was in the right spot for a hard kick and the symptoms were in line with a trauma. So I gave her some bute, performed hydrotherapy on it. The next morning I took her in to work with me at the vet clinic where I am a vet tech.
My regular horse vet looked at her and immediately thought it could be a possible case of Pigeon Fever (or Pigeon Breast as it is sometimes called). He had already seen an increased number of cases in our area. But since her symptoms were also consistent with a traumatic injury, he wanted to just watch her for a few days to see if the swelling went down at all.
If it was trauma, she should progressively show improvement with hydrotherapy and bute over the next several days. Since it was the day before Thanksgiving and I would be going out of town, I left her in his capable hands for the holiday.
Day 5 – I arrived home on Friday afternoon following Thanksgiving and spoke to my vet about my mare’s progress. He indicated that the swelling had actually crept further up her neck and shoulder and was showing no signs of improvement at this point. He did an ultrasound but did not find any pockets where an abscess was forming, which would be consistent with Pigeon Fever.
We were at a loss to explain what was happening to her at this point…kind of in limbo, waiting to see what would happen next. He told me I could go ahead and take her home. We put her on a round of SMZ’s and bute and twice daily hydrotherapy just in case it was a cellulitis, and decided to watch and wait for how she reacted to the antibiotic.
Day 10 – After finishing the round of antibiotics with no improvement in her condition, but still no sign of a soft spot where an abscess may be rearing it’s ugly head, I was becoming increasingly frustrated. My vet said to give it a few more days and we could re-ultrasound if there was still no change in her condition.
Day 13 – So this now brings us to the present. When I went out to feed last night, I was running my hand over the swelling checking for a developing soft spot. This time I found one…right in the middle of the swelling, a quarter-sized soft spot developing. I immediately called the vet on call at the clinic and he agreed that it was most likely we were dealing with Pigeon Breast considering the time frame and symptoms were have been dealing with.
As this is a highly contagious bacterium, the recommendation is to isolate the infected horse and disinfect the area thoroughly where the infected horse is being treated. I’ll be flushing the abscess, once it has erupted, twice daily as I would treat any abscess, and make sure to isolate and dispose of any drainage material so that my other horses cannot come in contact with it.
It is unsure how my mare contracted the bacterium since I very rarely take her off property. However, since the harsh drought affecting Texas seems to have aided in the increase in cases, it is very possible that the bacterium was already here.
Do not get lulled into the false sense of security that your horses will not contract this if they do not leave their own property. If any of your horses have similar symptoms, take all necessary precautions to isolate particularly if they have an open weeping abscess. So far none of my other horses have shown any symptoms.
I hope this article helps someone else that may run across similar symptoms in one of their horses. Being informed and prepared are our best defenses as horse owners in maintaining our horses’ health and well being.
Lisa Carter is a Certified Equine Massage Therapist (CEMT), with multiple certifications from several different equine bodywork schools. She incorporates her knowledge and experience with Parelli Natural Horsemanship, equine bodywork and as a veterinary technician to provide her clients with the resources they need to make informed decisions for their horses. She encourages and facilitates network building between equine health care professionals, working together to find the best combination of therapies to meet the needs of the “whole horse”.
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I have had two horses come down with this. Had to have the vet burst the abycess, drain it and give the horse antibiotics. These horses havent been off the ranch in a long time.
Stuff is going around though, my vet has seen a lot of cases too!
Thanks for sharing!
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I have read your post and it was very helpful. You broke your days down and told your story great. Sorry about your horse.
Thank you! She’s doing great now, you can’t even tell she had that big nasty abscess. She had to be confined for about 3 weeks until everything finished draining and was closing up and then she was off galloping in the pasture with the other horses. She was quite funny to watch the first day, she had sooooo much energy:)
Lisa, your article was so good, you described my situation exactly! right down to each day, the only difference is my vet had to lance it because it was never going to burst on its own, it was way too deep still at day 14. I am dealing with the drainage now. not fun! thank you so much for your information. can they get multiple abcesses in other areas?
Hi Cheryl. I’m so sorry your horse is having such a horrible time! And yes, they can have multiple abscesses crop up, but I don’t believe that is common. You’ll just want to make sure that you keep the abscess flushed well and don’t let it close up when there is still a big pocket. This can allow bacteria and debris to become trapped and the abscess to reform. Good luck and keep us informed on your progress. Thanks so much for sharing.
Lisa, this article was very informative and most helpful as my QH mare April, was just diagnosed as contracting it. Our vet lanced it, and the hydrotherapy has helped so much. Thanks for writing this ii such a wonderfully easy to read format! Glad your mare, and April are doing better! Thanks!
Thanks so much Terry. I glad you found it helpful. The pigeon fever epidemic was quite the mess last year! It seems there’s been a resurgence in cases this spring as well. Take care:)
I don't have horses, but I love reading your articles about them. This article will help a lot of people. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us and so sorry about your horse!
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Five years ago when I lived in Central Oregon a friend of mine rescued this sweet little mare from a neighboring property. My friend hired me to massage the mare because she was acting very depressed and lathargic. She also noticed what appeared to be abcesses on her chest and shoulder and called the vet out. As soon as the vet took one look she said that she suspected Pigeon Fever, which is not prone to be in Oregon, yet that year she had seen two other cases.
The abcesses were lanced and flushed and I continued to do massage every other couple days wearing protective gloves. We also had a pan of bleach water to step in when coming out of the stall. I thoroughly washed my hands with anticeptic soap and changed clothing right after treatment on this mare.
Thank you again Lisa for reposting this article because I now live in the Southwest and therefore may come into contact again with this bacterium.
Your so welcome Patti! Thank YOU for sharing your experiences with this nasty bacterium. It is very important that we do whatever we can to help reduce the spread of it. Even now that the drought has subsided I still hear reports from around the country of isolated pockets of flare up.
Thanks for sharing this! During fly season, especially. My horse just recovered from an abscess caused by a splinter, but at first, it was suspected Pigeon Fever. Since I board, we put him in quarantine until the vet got there. She confirmed it wasn't PF and explained that quarantine doesn't prevent other horses from getting it. The puss is the problem. The flies carry PF from one horse to another, whether they're in the same pasture or not. It's not a fun thing to deal with and I hope no one else ever has to!
Thanks for sharing your experience here Tami! You are so correct, flies are a huge problem and can carry the bacteria from adjacent properties. We had no horses nearby ours at all and they never go anywhere. So we are a prime example of the contagion spreading without physical contact with infected horses.