Used as a weapon during World War I, this disease is still claiming the lives of horse and donkeys

After World War II, many nations had learned to control the disease, which doesn’t only kill the afflicted animal, but also humans coming in their contact. To avoid infection, the infected animal is shot immediately

Diti BajpaiDiti Bajpai   2 Nov 2019 11:54 AM GMT

Used as a weapon during World War I, this disease is still claiming the lives of horse and donkeys

In the days of yore, horses and elephants were used not only as mounts but also as weapons during wars. During World War I, Glanders Disease, a disease of horses and donkeys, was used as a biological weapon to bring enemy to its knees. The disease's bacteria was introduced to the enemy's camp through these animals.

After World War II, many nations had learned to control the disease, but even today it claims the lives of several horses, mules and donkeys. This incurable disease doesn't only kill the afflicted animal, but also humans coming in their contact. To avoid infection, the infected animal is shot immediately.

Dr Praveen Mallik, the Animal Husbandry Commissioner of the Central Fisheries, Dairy and Animal Husbandry Department, has written in detail about the practices of using these animals as biological weapons during wars in his research paper. He had mentioned how German agents had used it upon the horses and donkeys of the eastern front.

Glanders is a zoonotic disease which afflicts horse, mules and donkeys mostly. The diseased animal then needs to be killed. If an animal farmer comes in contact with the affected animal this disease gets spread also to humans. The disease being incurable, the diseased animal is given euthanasia due to which it moves to the eternal sleep within minutes.

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In July 2006, a case of the disease was reported in India wherein 20 horses and three mules samples from Maharashtra showed positive results. Thereafter in December 2006, 70 positive sample were found in Uttar Pradesh, which included 40 horses, eight ponies, 16 donkeys and six mules. In 2007, Punjab, Uttarakhand and Andhra Pradesh reported such cases. In October 2009, cases were reported from Chhattisgarh and in 2010, 2011, cases were reported from Uttar Pradesh.

The Animal Census, in its six-yearly report, mentioned the rapid fall in the population of horse, donkeys and mules in the country. As per the 20th Animal Census, in the past seven years (2012-19) their population has registered a decrease of six lakhs.

Due to mechanization, modern vehicles and lack of work at the brick kilns, people have given up rearing them. Some specialists are of the opinion that the fall in the donkey population in India can be attributed to the rapid rise in the demand for donkey's skin in China. They believe that the traditional Chinese medicine system uses donkey's skin to slow aging and increase vitality. As per the Animal Census 2019, India has 5,40,000 equines (horses, ponies, donkeys and mules) whereas in 2012 they were 11,40,000. This means there has been a 51.9 per cent fall of six lakh equines.

As per the Journal of Bio-terrorism and Bio-defense published in 2017, during the first World War, types of diseases were used as weapons to weaken the enemy's forces. Anthrax, plague and glanders infected animals and people were sent to the enemy camps. Being bacterial infections, these diseases use to spread like wildfire. Presence of glanders disease was affirmed during WWII.

Under the the Glanders and Farcy Act, provisions were made for mercy killing of the infected animal

For the past several years, Brooke India has been working to defend horses, donkeys and mules from glanders disease. Its veterinary officer, Dr Manish Rai informed, "This disease has been afflicting horses, mules and donkeys since ages and its bacteria was also used to win the world wars."

He added: "We all know that traditionally the wars were fought upon horses so some country used the bacteria as biological weapon by infecting with it the horses of the enemy forces thereby killing horses and people."

Although primarily affecting horses, this disease gets spread even to humans upon contact. Telling about its symptoms, Dr Manish said: "This disease spreads from the animals to the humans and so is called zoonotic. It produces varied symptoms in horses, mules and donkeys. The disease manifests itself as swollen lymph nodes and respiratory issues in case of mules and donkeys. Breathing becomes laboured and the ulcerations are formed in the mucous membrane which bleed."

The mules and donkeys succumb to the disease within a span of one week to 10 days whereas the horses can survive for months. When antibiotics are administered, the bacteria lessons the severity of the symptoms, which may appear as if the animal has recovered, but as soon as the antibiotics are stopped within, a fortnight the symptoms resurface. So, this is how the affected horses can survive for months.

Although primarily affecting horses, this disease gets spread even to humans upon contact.

After its presence was confirmed during WWII, the British took the disease very seriously and passed the Glanders and Farcy Act in 1899. Under the act, provisions were made for mercy killing of the infected animal and Rs 50 be given to its owner as compensation. This provision was followed for a long time. In 2016-17, the Central and the state governments prepared an action plan to combat the disease.

Dr Sharad Agarwal, joint director Animal Husbandry Department, Uttar Pradesh informed, "The institutions had stressed upon increasing the compensation post mercy killing. So, Rs 25,000 for the horses and Rs 16,000 are given for the mules to the owners now as compensation. Out of this, 50 per cent is given by the Center whereas 50 per cent is provided by the state government."

Dr Agarwal said: "249 samples in 2017-18, 229 in 2018-19 and in 2019-20, 85 samples tested positive. An action plan has been prepared to finish off with this disease. Under this, blood samples of horses, donkeys and mules are gathered and sent at regular intervals to National Equine Research Centre. If confirmed positive, the animal is then given mercy death. Due to higher incidences of the disease, the labs would soon be opened in Uttar Pradesh's Gorakhpur, Agra and Lucknow so that the samples can be examined sooner."

Read Also: Livestock census: Population of donkeys, mules and ponies sees a dip of 52% since the 2012 census
Read Also: Livestock Census 2019: Population up 4.6% to 536 million

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