Rockwood Park stables closed after horse contracts highly contagious disease

The stables at Saint John's Rockwood Park have closed after one case of the highly contagious horse disease strangles has been confirmed and three other horses have fallen ill.

1 confirmed case of respiratory infection called strangles, 3 other horses sick, officials say

Lees Doley, co-owner and operator of Rockwood Stables, said a new horse came in last month, appearing to be perfectly healthy, but about 12 days later, she started showing symptoms of strangles. (CBC)

The stables at Saint John's Rockwood Park are closed to the public and wagon rides cancelled due to the presence of the highly contagious horse disease called strangles.

There is one confirmed case of the bacterial respiratory infection and three suspected cases, said co-owner and operator Lees Doley.

That brings the total number of lab-confirmed cases in New Brunswick to three since strangles hit the province last month.

All three are "south of Fredericton," but in separate locations, said Nicole Wanamaker, manager of provincial veterinary services. She declined to reveal exactly where, citing privacy reasons.

Cases have also been reported in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

Strangles can cause excess mucus, cough and fever in horses as well as abscess swelling under the jaw and throat, obstructing the airway and making it difficult for them to chew and swallow.

They may become lethargic and have a reduced appetite.

The bacteria is primarily spread by direct contact between horses or shared environments, such as water troughs, but the bacteria can also be transferred via people's hands or clothing.

The infection does not affect people or other animals.

Rockwood Stables, located at Rockwood Park in Saint John's north end, is closed to the public until further notice, following an outbreak of strangles in New Brunswick. (Rachel Cave/CBC)

The actual number of cases of strangles in New Brunswick could be higher than three, said Wanamaker. Her office is waiting for the lab results on some other swab samples.

But strangles is not a reportable disease, so her office doesn't necessarily hear from private veterinarians who treat horses, she said.

In addition, it can take up to two weeks after exposure for an infected — and contagious — horse to exhibit symptoms.

And even when they do, it can be mistaken for a cold or allergies.

Strangles is primarily spread by direct contact between horses or shared environments, such as water troughs, but the bacteria can also be transferred via people's hands or clothing. (Rachel Cave/CBC)

Doley said she didn't think much of it when a new horse at Rockwood Stables developed a runny nose.

"If we hadn't have had this horse checked [by a veterinarian], I would've thought she just had allergies," she said.

"And if someone hadn't have said to me, 'Have you heard that strangles is out there?' we probably wouldn't have called the vet. I wouldn't have thought of that immediately. I mean horses, like kids, get runny noses all the time."

Now, she's got five of approximately 16 horses under quarantine, including the one confirmed case, three sick horses and another horse that was exposed to the sick horses, but isn't showing any symptoms.

Lees Doley's horse Cody is one of the five quarantined at Rockwood Stables. He was exposed to the four sick horses but does not have any symptoms of strangles. (CBC)

"For the safety of the horses, we have decided to close the barn to the public," reads a sign posted on the stable door Monday.

The closure will remain in effect until the "flare up" across the Maritimes is under control, the notice states.

Strangles can be treated with antibiotics and most affected horses will recover within three or four weeks.

Doley said all of her sick horses have already improved.

"All the fevers are gone. All the runny noses are gone. None of them are coughing. They're all eating."

She's swabbing her horses every week, hoping to get negative results three consecutive times.

Only then will she reopen to the public, she said, noting this month will be a definite financial hit to her business, which operates year-round on land leased from the City of Saint John.

Veterinarian Mitch Downey said people working with horses need to take precautions to help prevent spreading the disease. (CBC)

Veterinarian Mitch Downey said the disease can be also be costly to treat and people working with animals must take precautions.

"Oftentimes, it's complete changing of clothing, footwear, bathing, washing diligently. Disinfecting all instruments, tools used on the premises," he said.

"It's very time-consuming but obviously very important in terms of preventing spread of bacteria."

Other biosecurity measures recommended by the province include not allowing any new animals on the premises, restricting visitors, monitoring the behaviour and temperature of horses and isolating any sick horse as soon as possible.

Vaccine available

A preventive vaccine followed by a booster is available for about $65.

It doesn't work in the midst of an outbreak, but many horses north of Fredericton have been getting it, according to Wanamaker.

She said it's about 60 or 70 per cent effective.

"​It won't stop the disease," said Wanamaker. "It will at least reduce the severity of the clinical signs, and hopefully the horse won't maybe have as high of a fever, the abscesses may not appear, things like that."

Wanamaker recommends horse owners talk to their veterinarian to determine if the vaccine is the right option for them.

She is also encouraging horse owners and veterinarians to report any cases of strangles.

Nicole Wanamaker, manager of the province's veterinary services with the Department of Agriculture, said she'd like to see strangles be a reportable disease, but that would require legislative changes. (Matthew Bingley)

The first case of strangles in New Brunswick was confirmed on May 18, according to the Department of Agriculture's provincial veterinary service.

On May 28, the department issued an advisory about a second case being confirmed at a different barn from the previously diagnosed case.

A no-movement policy was implemented at the second unidentified location, which will remain in place for at least two weeks while the horses are being monitored, the advisory states.

The department issued an advisory about the third case on June 1.

With files from Rachel Cave