Natural Remedies for Pigeon Fever in Horses

I hail from Oklahoma and until a year or two ago, hadn’t heard about Pigeon Fever, aka Dryland Distemper.  But thanks to an enduring drought in the mid-western United States, we’re now getting a taste of what horse owners in California have dealt with for years. Pigeon Fever isn’t transmitted by pigeons, but gets its name from its most telltale sign–an abscess that usually appears on the horse’s pectoral region, giving the horse a pigeon-breast appearance.

The infection is actually transmitted by the bacteria, Corynebacterium pseudotuberculosis, which lives in and multiplies in warm, dry soil.  In the past, it was usually found in places like California, but during the last few years, it’s popped up in other many other states.

The symptoms of PF include a large abscess (or multiple smaller abscesses), which usually form on the chest, but can form under the belly, or sometimes (although rarely) on internal organs. The latter form of PF can be deadly. Affected horses can run a fever, but usually have a normal attitude and appetite. They may be sore to walk once the abscess has become enlarged. Horses with internal abscesses will become lethargic and increasingly more ill.

I had avoided the dreaded infection with my five horses, until recently. But last month, I noticed a hard, baseball-sized lump on my gelding, Bob’s, chest. I immediately thought, ‘Pigeon Fever’ (but I tend to overreact when it comes to my horses sometimes. . .)  Bob was eating fine and had no fever, so I decided just to watch the lump. The lump didn’t seem painful, so I continued to ride him. After a couple of weeks, the lump was still there.  I decided to check in with my vet. He told me it was most likely a hematoma from some kind of trauma. Totally plausible.

Then after another week or so, the lump suddenly doubled in size. I called my vet again. He still believed it to be a hematoma that would go away on its own and told me not to worry. But worrying is what I do best! A few days later, I took Bob in to be examined.

Once my vet saw the hard mass on Bob’s chest that now had quadrupled from its original size, he quickly diagnosed it as Pigeon Fever–although he said it appeared to be a mild case. He told me I had two options: either let it take it’s course naturally or to put him on an antibiotic. He didn’t seem too optimistic about the antibiotic, even saying that if it was his horse, he wouldn’t give it.  Even though I’m normally cautious when it comes to antibiotics, given their evident overuse in both humans and animals, I didn’t want to take any chances with Bob, who’d had colic surgery four years ago. I opted for the antibiotic.

As soon as I arrived home, I decided to do some more research on PF.  I suddenly thought I remembered reading somewhere that antibiotic treatment of PF was controversial. Turns out that I had remembered correctly.  According to the AAEP website, many vets who are experienced in treating PF believe that antibiotics may only slow the progression of the abscess and may lead to an increased chance of internal abscessing. If the horse is exhibiting normal behavior and appetite, many vets choose to forgo antibiotic treatment. Needless to say, I promptly returned the unopened antibiotics to my vet after reading that.

Instead, I chose to use acupressure and hot compresses to help the abscess come to a head so it can burst and drain. The mass is still firm, but it should soften and open up to drain. If it doesn’t, I may be going back to the vet to have it lanced and drained.

Here are some acupressure points I’m using on Bob. They’re immune-boosting points that will the horse’s body to naturally fight infection:


immune points

You can check out a video of me using these points for a demonstration here.

I also read that applying a hot compress to the abscess will help it to mature faster (which is what we want).

Bob’s been a trooper through the whole thing so far. I’m hoping the end is near. Once the abscess begins draining, it’s important to keep it clean and avoid contamination to other horses–PF is highly contagious. Flies are mainly responsible for transmission, but now that we’ve had our first freeze, I don’t think they’ll be too much of a problem. Bob may be living in the round pen until the abscess heals though.

Have you used any natural remedies for pigeon fever in horses?  Feel free to comment and let us know what they were!




Hi! My name is Casie Bazay. I'm a mom, a freelance writer, and a certified equine acupressure practitioner.

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3 Responses

  1. Ruth Fruehauf says:

    Hi there, I’m using the homeopathic nosode for pigeon fever quite successfully along with large doses of vit C… my horses spots have reduced by 50%… good luck… take care, Ruth

  2. Michelle says:

    Just wanted to comment even though this is an old post. I have had a long run with pigeon fever as my boy contracted it last year an blew an abscess on his sheath. The swelling never went all the down and he abcessed in his chest this year. I used the betonite clay as a paste on the abcess and it worked great to draw out the puss and keep the flies off. Every time it dried and fell off I just reapplied. It has taken a very long time to heal and I am now using several herbs to try an kick the rest of it out of his system, as his sheath is still swollen a bit on one side. He has been completely normal through the whole ordeal and hasn’t had any weight loss or lethargy. But I’m sure hoping he doesn’t abcess again next year ..pigeon fever sucks☹️

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