Chincoteague Ponies Are Dying Of A Disease Called ‘Swamp Cancer’

The herd has lived on Assateague and Chicoteague Islands for hundreds of years.

Assateague Wild Ponies Make Annual Swim To Chincoteague Island
Mark Wilson / Getty Images

The herd has lived on Assateague and Chicoteague Islands for hundreds of years.

The wild ponies of Chincoteague and Assateague Islands have grazed on the land of the barrier islands for centuries, but now the herd has been fighting a fungal disease some are referring to as swamp cancer. Over the last year, a number of horses have had to be euthanized, but now the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which manages the herd, has brought in a team of veterinarians to fight the disease.

CNN says that with the colder weather, the disease that is striking down the beautiful wild ponies seems under control, but many are fearing the hot and humid weather when the swamp cancer seems to flare up as the organism which causes it grows and spreads on dead and dying grass and plants.

Supporters of the herd are hoping for a vaccine which would prevent the disease and more effective treatments and ways of catching it early, which right now seems to be the key.

Darcy Cole, a local photographer who spends around 300 days a year photographing the animals that most people believe came over with the earliest Spanish colonists, says that catching the disease early seems to be the key to whether the horses can be saved.

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Four Chincoteague, Virginia, ponies afflicted with swamp cancer, the mysterious disease that also killed ponies earlier this year, were euthanized last week. The announcement marked the end of a months-long battle with a fungus-like disease that leaves ponies with lesions on their bodies and can be very painful. Seven Chincoteague ponies were diagnosed with the disease in October. The treatment, which was originally estimated to cost at least $1,500 per pony, included surgeries and lots of medical attention. Denise Bowden, spokesperson for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which manages the ponies, announced in a Facebook post that although the ponies "received the very best care money could buy," the decision was ultimately made to put them down. "They had surgeries, more medicine than you can imagine, round-the-clock care and lots and lots of love and attention," Bowden wrote. "They just couldn’t fight this off, and before we let them suffer any more than they have been, we feel the right decision was made." Three ponies had died of swamp cancer earlier this year. Essie, a 5-year-old mare, died in October. RainDancer, estimated to be about 6 months old, and Lyra, believed to be 13 years old, both died earlier in December. ????: Jenna Miller/Delmarva Now #chincoteague #ponies #chincoteagueponies #wildponies

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Because Cole spends so much time observing and photographing the wild ponies, she has been able to notify their caregivers when she notices a change.

“The real secret is catching it early.”

At this time, the herd, which numbers around 150, seems healthy, but Denise Bowden, the spokeswoman for the fire company, says they are concerned about the warmer months.

“Outside of saving lives and properties these ponies are our No. 1 priority. We are animal lovers, too.”

The origin of the disease seems to start with pythiosis, which starts with lesions on the legs of the ponies and ultimately harms their immune system. Traditionally, in the past, this has only been a problem in Latin America and the Gulf states.

Dr. Richard Hansen is a researcher whose company is working on a vaccine and enhanced immunotherapy to fight the infection, and he says that the wild ponies are easy targets due to their long hair and cuts on legs and torsos.

“It’s attracted to a wound, maybe even a tiny one.”

Last summer, local vets tried to fight the disease with antifungal treatment, and while it seemed to work at first, the pythiosis “came back with a vengeance.”

Dr. Allison Dotzel believes that they only thing to do is get ahead of it.

“I think the efforts need to be in prevention. It is a notoriously difficult disease to treat.”