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Guide to Common Horse Illnesses and How to Treat Them

For the horse-lover, caring for your four-legged companion is a major undertaking. Anyone caring for horses must understand how to provide a comfortable and safe environment and how to follow healthy maintenance and grooming practices to reduce the risk of disease. In addition, it’s important to know the first signs of the most common equine diseases so you can take any necessary action right away. Learn how to detect the most likely disorders and syndromes that affect horses and what you should do in case of infection. That way, if your horse is affected, you can act swiftly and ensure the best chances of a speedy recovery.

Cushing’s Disease

Cushing’s Disease, also known as Cushing’s Syndrome or Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction, is characterized by an accumulation of cortisol. It may involve either a benign tumor or simply excessive tissue growth in the horse’s pituitary gland. Symptoms include lethargy, excessive thirst, muscle and weight loss, infertility, and the onset of various allergies or hypersensitivities. There is no known cure for the disease, but horse owners may manage the horse’s symptoms with drugs such as pergolide mesylate or cyproheptadine.


Equine protozoal myeloencephalitis, also known as EPM, is a neurological disease affecting horses. The disease is caused by protozoa called Sarcosystic neurona. The parasitic protozoa infect horses through their water or feed, living in the tissues of the horse’s nervous system and eventually causing seizures, vision problems, and potentially death. Symptoms may include lesions and abnormal behavior. The FDA has approved several drugs for treating EPM: ponazuril, nitazoxanide, diclazuril, and a combination treatment of sufladiazine and pyrimethamine.

Equine Herpesvirus

The equine herpesvirus actually consists of various virus types, which can range widely in severity. Depending on the form of herpesvirus, the disease may affect the respiratory system and/or the nervous system. Symptoms include fever, lethargy, anorexia, coughing, impaired coordination, and weakness. Vaccinations can help prevent some forms of the virus. However, no treatments exist in case of infection, aside from palliative care.


Lameness is, in fact, an imprecise term that may refer to a wide range of individual equine health problems, including laminitis, bone injuries, neurological problems, and other diseases of the hooves or the musculoskeletal system. Symptoms typically include an inability to perform ordinary movements, weakness, a lack of coordination, and irregularities in gait. Treatments may range from pharmaceutical treatment to massage to work with a professional trainer.


Also known as tetanus, lockjaw is a serious bacterial disease affecting horses’ central nervous systems. Symptoms of infection include heightened sensitivity, spasms, and protruding eyelids. The best treatment is preventative, using a tetanus vaccine. In case of infection, a horse may also be treated with antibiotics and antitoxins.

Rain Scald

Also known as dermatophilosis, rain scald is a type of bacterial skin infection. The primary symptoms of the infection are crusts or scabs covering the horse’s coat. Sometimes, these patches of scabs may also be accompanied by swelling. The issue can be treated fairly easily, however, with a range of antibiotic drugs.


Ringworm is actually caused by a fungus, not a worm. The infection is highly contagious and transmitted through contact. Symptoms include circular tufts of the hair as well as molting and an outbreak of scales or pus somewhere on the horse’s coat. Treatment includes fungicides and trimming all infected hair.


Strangles is a highly contagious bacterial infection that can cause abscesses in the lymph nodes and potentially interfere with the horse’s breathing. The most tell-tale symptom is discharge of pus from the nose. Treatments for strangles include antibiotics, although some veterinarians counsel against using antibiotics, advising instead to allow the horse to develop an immunity to the infection independently.

Swamp Fever

Swamp fever, technically known as equine infectious anemia or EIA, is a viral infection. The infection may cause listlessness, depression, blood in the feces, and, eventually, death. While there are no known cures for the disease, it is possible to test for signs of infection. In cases of infected horses, owners must choose to euthanize the horse or put it in lifetime quarantine.

By Alan Bernau Jr

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