A handful of cases of pigeon fever, a disease that causes abscesses and a mild fever in horses, have been reported in western and north-central Arkansas. Incidents have been reported by horse owners near Fort Smith and near El Paso in White County.
“Pigeon fever is not very common in Arkansas,” said Mark Russell, assistant professor-equine Extension for the University of Arkansas. “It’s more prevalent in drier climates, but the recent drought in parts of Arkansas may be why we’re seeing it now.”
Jeremy Powell, DVM, Extension veterinarian, said that pectoral abscesses are the most common symptom of the disease caused by the bacterium Corynebacterium pseudotuberculosis. While cattle are also susceptible, humans are not.
The abscesses “cause the appearance of a protruding breast like a pigeon breast – which accounts for the name of the disease. These can also occur in along the belly and the lower neck region or on a front or rear limb. Often an owner will think the horse has been injured due to a kick from another horse.”
Abscesses can appear on the face, mimicking tooth root abscess. Deep abscesses can also occur in lungs, kidneys or liver, but are much less common. Affected horses may appear weak and exhibit stiffness or lameness associated with the swollen tissue.
Insects, especially flies, are the primary mode of transmission for pigeon fever. Both Powell and Russell said horse-to-horse contact or contract with contaminated soil can let bacteria enter through cuts and scrapes and mucous membranes.
Horse owners should:
- Isolate infected horses.
- Practice good sanitation.
“Any discharge from the abscess will contain the infectious bacteria,” Powell said. “Dispose of contaminated bedding or other material. Any tack or other equipment should be disinfected with a mild bleach solution and owners should always wash their hands after handling an infected horse.”
- Control flies.
Russell said horse owners should be extra careful of waste management or other practices that will cut down the number of flies around the animals.
- Contact your veterinarian for treatment options.
Powell said the superficial abscesses don’t require antibiotics and may be treated with heat packs and lancing. “Deep abscesses will require antibiotic therapy.”
In late December, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry said it had received more than 30 reports of pigeon fever in horses.
For more information on managing livestock, visit www.uaex.edu  or contact your county Extension office.