A couple days ago, I was talking to a vet who’s trying to manage a strangles outbreak on a farm. In many outbreaks, the biggest hassles are dealing with horse owners, not the disease itself. Strangles, infection by the bacterium Streptococcus equi subsp. equi, is a highly contagious disease but one that is relatively easy to control if things are done right.
The critical variable is whether people will do things right.
There are many issues that result in prolonged outbreaks at single facilities or spread of strangles from farm to farms, but two are quite common, recurrent problems.
1. Unwillingness of people to skip shows during the outbreak. I understand the desire to go to shows, since the show season may be short and shows are what people look forward to all year. However, despite the fact that it’s clearly unethical for people to take a horse to a show from a barn where a strangles outbreak is underway, it happens all the time. That’s probably one of the most important ways strangles is spread during the show season.
2. People moving horses to other barns. It’s not uncommon for there to have already been one or more people flee the barn by the time I’m involved in an outbreak investigation, and I’ve seen multiple situations where one-farm outbreaks have turned into regional outbreaks because of this. This response is sometimes because individuals want to try to avoid the outbreak (although their horse may have already been exposed, making it too late), or to avoid any restrictions that might be put on the barn and movement of horses therefrom.
Both situations are common, but ethically are unacceptable. If a person knows that his/her horse is on a farm where strangles is present, the animal is considered infectious until proven otherwise.
How can these problems be prevented?
1) Boarding contracts that stipulate owners will stay on the farm in the event of an outbreak (maybe not easy to enforce, but at least addresses the issue up front).
2) The carrot: Emphasizing that with a good infection control response, if a particular horse has not been exposed, it probably won’t be, and if it has been exposed, it’s a risk to others. Either way, keeping it on the farm is the best for it and for others.
3) The stick: Reminding owners that they know their horses might have been exposed to strangles. If they take a horse somewhere and infect other horses, they might be (or should be) liable for any costs and losses associated with those subsequent cases. Infectious diseases are an inherent risk of life and are not always preventable, but when someone knowingly creates a high risk situation (and that situation was avoidable), legal consequences may ensue.