Equine owners are being asked to be extra vigilant for signs of pigeon fever in their horses. There has been a spike in reported cases of this infectious disease in the northern Front Range of Colorado. Pigeon fever is a highly contagious disease known by other names such as pigeon breast, breastbone fever, false strangles, dryland strangles or dryland distemper.
The disease, which can be fatal, is caused by bacteria that live in the soil and can enter the animal's body through wounds, broken skin or mucous membranes. Humans cannot catch pigeon fever, but they can spread it from horse to horse because the bacteria can be carried on shoes, clothing, hands or barn tools.
Pigeon fever can affect a horse of any age, sex or breed, but it usually attacks young adult animals. Sometimes the only initial signs are lameness and a reluctance to move. Other signs include fever, lethargy and weight loss. Any horse showing signs of pigeon fever should be isolated to prevent spread to other animals. Areas where infected horses are held must be properly cleaned and completely disinfected.