What Is Glanders Disease?

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on March 21, 2023
4 min read

What is glanders? Glanders is a disease caused by bacteria called Burkholderia mallei. It is primarily known to affects animals like horses, donkeys, and mules, but it can also infect humans. 

Glanders disease has been reported as far back as 500 A.D. It was more common when people used horses and other animals as a primary mode of transport. Glanders has also been called equinia, farcy, malleus, or droes. 

Nowadays, it is considered a rare disease, but it still exists in certain parts of the world. People who work with animals are the most likely to get it. 

You can experience many different symptoms if infected with glanders. Symptoms vary based on how you came into contact with the bacteria. 
If you develop glanders, getting proper treatment quickly is essential to make a full recovery. 

Glanders disease has historically affected equine animals, but it can also infect humans following prolonged contact with an infected animal. Veterinarians, horse handlers, and stable workers are all at a higher risk of infection. 

Human-to-human transmission is very rare, though it is possible following prolonged contact with an infected person, including their bodily fluids. 

Glanders Disease in Other Animals

Glanders is well-known for affecting horses, mules, and donkeys. It can also infect other domestic animals and livestock like goats, dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, and guinea pigs. 

Cows, chickens, and pigs don’t seem to be affected by glanders, though. 

Glanders can affect you to different degrees based on how you contracted it. There are five ways glanders disease can initially infect you:

Cutaneous form. The disease enters your body through a scrape or cut on the skin. These lesions can show signs of infection accompanied by swollen lymph nodes within five days. The bacteria is less likely to enter closed, healthy skin. 

Upper respiratory infection. The disease enters through your mucous membranes like the eyes and nose. Infected sites will experience increased mucous production. 

Pulmonary form. You can contract glanders in the lungs by inhaling the bacteria. This can result in pneumonia, a lung infection, or pus-filled cavities in the lungs (pulmonary abscesses). 

Chronic form. Glanders can be a recurring or persistent disease for some. Abscesses can develop on your muscles and major internal organs. 

Bloodstream infection. If glanders infects the bloodstream (i.e., septicemia), it can be fatal in as little as 7 to 10 days. 

You can also be infected by Burkholderia mallei through more than one entry point. 

Some symptoms of glanders are specific to the site of infection. For example, you will only see pneumatic symptoms in someone who has contracted glanders in the lungs. 

There are other general symptoms that can vary with each infection: 

  • Fever
  • Shivers and sweats
  • Chest pain
  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • Cough
  • Muscle soreness and tightness
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Excessive mucous
  • Tearing in the eyes
  • Diarrhea
  • Ulcers
  • Fatigue

If your healthcare provider suspects you’ve contracted glanders, they can order a test to isolate the bacteria Burkholderia mallei. This is usually done using a sample of blood, urine, or mucous.  

Cases of glanders in humans are rare, and there isn’t much research or information available on treatments. Doctors have found that humans respond to an antibiotic called sulfadiazine, though, so it’s often given as a primary treatment method. 

There are also several other antibiotic treatments available that have been shown to affect the bacteria, including: 

  • Tetracycline
  • Novobiocin
  • Gentamicin
  • Novobiocin
  • Gentamicin
  • Sulfonamide
  • Imipenem
  • Ceftazidime 

There is currently no vaccine for glanders. Even so, it’s unlikely you’ll develop glanders disease if you live in the United States. It hasn’t been documented in the U.S. since 1945. 

There have been cases more recently in South and Central America, parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, though, and people who work with animals (especially horses) are most at risk. 

Here are some types of people who are more likely to be exposed to glanders: 

  • Veterinarians or veterinary students
  • Hoof-care workers
  • Animal transportation workers
  • Slaughterhouse workers
  • Stable workers
  • Farmers
  • Horse handlers

Even if you are at risk of developing glanders, though, there are precautions you can take. Protective equipment like disposable gloves, eyewear, masks, and gowns can reduce the risk of transmission.

Additionally, the disease has been eliminated from the U.S. largely due to strict controls on infected animals. If you suspect an animal has Glanders, report it to the local animal authorities or a veterinarian. 

Although it’s not known to be highly contagious in its natural form, Glanders was used as a biological weapon in both World Wars.

The bacteria was believed to have been spread to opposing armies. It was meant to infect enemy soldiers and their horses, rendering troops defenseless and without their cavalry. 

It’s still thought to be a potential biological weapon because glanders is rare, isn’t a well-known disease, and can make those infected very unwell.