Pigeon Fever: It has Nothing to do with Birds

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Pigeon Fever: It has Nothing to do with Birds

Photo: Sharon Spier, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM

Q. What causes pigeon fever in horses?

Gail, Australia


A. No. 1: Pigeon fever is not caused by birds. It's a Gram-positive bacterial infection of Corynebacterium pseudotuberculosis, so it not a viral or parasitic disease. It does occur worldwide in horses.

Interestingly, in Australia, it's very prevalent in sheep and goats, but not in horses. There are different strains of the bacteria that are seen in sheep and goats versus horses, and horses can’t catch it from sheep or goats. I would encourage you, if you’ve see suspected cases in horses, to do some cultures and see if it truly is this bacterium causing problems.

The disease takes on different forms. The most common by far includes abscesses in the pectoral region, which gives the horse a swollen chest. It resembles a (puffed up) pigeon’s breast, which gives it the name “pigeon fever.” It has nothing to do with and is not transmitted by pigeons. It’s also known as dryland distember, false strangles, or Wyoming strangles.

Editor’s note: For more information about pigeon fever, listen to our hour long podcast "Pigeon Fever: Learn How to Protect Your Horses."

About the Author

Sharon Spier, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM

Sharon Spier, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, is a professor of the Department of Medicine and Epidemiology at the University of California, Davis. Her areas of interest include Corynebacterium pseudotuberculosis infection (also known as pigeon fever or dryland distemper), hyperkalemic periodic paralysis, and genetic diseases of horses.

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