Wild horse caretakers on watch for ‘swamp cancer’ among herd

By on January 10, 2019

Wild horses in Carova. (Corolla Wild Horse Fund)

The Corolla Wild Horse Fund is taking precautions to prevent the deadly “swamp cancer” that claimed the lives of six horses on Virginia’s Chincoteague Island.

The illness is caused by pythiosis, a fungus found in stagnant water in areas where there’s no hard freeze in the winter.

CWHF, which cares for the Currituck Outer Banks’ wild horse population, says pythiosis is most often seen along the Gulf Coast. But warmer winters and increased precipitation in recent years is leaving North Carolina vulnerable to an outbreak.

Horses are infected when the organism enters the bloodstream through an open wound, cut or scratch, the fund said. It can also enter through the gastrointestinal tract. It causes lesions on the horse’s legs, belly and genitals, and it is most often fatal.

On Chincoteague, six horses were infected and all were eventually euthanized when treatments failed.

“A vaccine is being developed, but it is not FDA approved yet,” the fund said in a Facebook note. “We do not vaccinate the wild herd for any other potentially fatal diseases (West Nile, rabies, etc.) and at this juncture we do not intend to vaccinate for pythiosis either. However, we will continue to stay on top of the latest research and heed the advice of our vet.”

CWHF is planning an informational flyer to distribute to property owners in the 4×4 area to encourage them to clean up debris or trash that could cause cuts and scrapes on the horses.

“We will also be distributing examples of what to look for in case of an outbreak (like pictures of pythiosis lesions) and ask people to call and report any horse they see with open cuts and scrapes, or suspicious wounds,” CWHF said.

At the group’s rescue farm, horses are always closely monitored for cuts and scrapes, and any abnormal behavior is addressed immediately.

“We do not have any standing water on the property, but we are being extra cautious during rainy weather to not leave horses in pastures that do not immediately drain,” the CWHF said.

The group said they are staying on top of the latest research and talking with horse owners who have experienced pythiosis.

“… We will be ready to act should we see an outbreak here. Hopefully it will not come to that, but we’d certainly rather be safe than sorry.”





  • Michael

    When have we had warmer winters here? Just curious. We’ve had a warm last 30 days for sure but warmer winters? Chincoteague certainly has plenty of sub zero temps every winter. Hopefully they get it figured out so the horses don’t suffer, but another crazy ( global warming theory) . It’s out of control. It was freezing in chincoteague in November/ early December. Snow storm in Virginia in December. My problem is stating ” warmer winters ” It’s not factual. Sorry. Hopefully they do find a way for the horses to not suffer though.

    Thursday, Jan 10 @ 1:25 am
  • dave

    Hey Michael! Go to your neighbors and ask them if you can borrow their Google Machine. Look up climate vs weather. Then, look up climate change. You will see that about 99% of ALL the top climatologists in the world agree that that climate change is indeed man made. Its not even a debate now. Welcome to 2019!!

    Thursday, Jan 10 @ 10:48 am
  • Denise Steffanus

    Several years ago I wrote an in-depth article about pythiosis for the Quarter Horse Journal. I sent the Chincoteague ponies’ caretakers a copy of my story, all my research, and the contact information for the researchers/experts I interviewed. I hope they were able to make good use of it to save these iconic animals.

    Thursday, Jan 10 @ 12:41 pm
  • Windy Bill

    When I first moved at the beginning of 1978 annual snow was common with a hard frost possible anytime after Oct. 30. We even had a 2′ blizzard about 1971. We had a white Christmas about 86 or 7. We now have had no snow for a good number of years. It is Jan. 10 and no hard frost yet. A good freeze used to happen anytime after Thanksgiving, which was the deadline to winterize houses (drain all water to prevent pipes from freezing). It has now been several years since a hard freeze. The bugs love it.
    (EDIT if necessary) The members of one political party, whose name I cannot say in polite company) has their heads so far up a dark place they cannot see these changes.
    Sincerely, Windy Bill

    Thursday, Jan 10 @ 1:37 pm
  • CorollaCat

    Everybody calm down.

    Thursday, Jan 10 @ 6:24 pm
  • Freenusa

    Windy bill yr recollection of winters is not tooo accurate. I grew up in eastern NC an we never had regular snows. Early last January we had days of temps n the teens. We also had 2 snows n January, one of which I measured 9 inches in my front yard. As for the white Christmas, it was 1989 on the obx.

    Friday, Jan 11 @ 9:47 am
  • richard

    I’ve been hearing that climate change is just something invented by the Chinese.

    Friday, Jan 11 @ 12:48 pm
  • Windy Bill

    Thanks to CorollaCat for directing the focus back to what matters here, the horses.

    Friday, Jan 11 @ 1:14 pm
  • CorollaCat

    Well done Richard…

    Friday, Jan 11 @ 11:52 pm
  • Lee

    I think the best for the horses and the people of our area wound be to send them to Maine where this is not a problem. It would seriously reduce the traffic on the beach and reduce the urine smell that chokes you at certain times of the year in the back side of carova. The stagnant puddles hold more than a danger for the horses, Last summer after walking through one of these puddles to open my gate to my property I had a serious rash break out on my feet where my shoe touched my feet. As the number of people rise coming to our area and the county refusing to control the numbers the issues for the horses are only going to grow. Sometime our love for something over rules it safety.

    Saturday, Jan 12 @ 6:24 am
  • Windy Bill

    To Freenusa, yes last Jan was bad. I guess I just wanted to forget the pain in my and everyones electric bills. Sorry for that.

    Monday, Jan 14 @ 1:23 pm
  • Ron

    The demise of the horses and the northern beaches are due to the overabundance of tourists. Definitely do not go there in the summer, it’s atrocious.

    Thursday, Jan 17 @ 5:52 am