Botulism in horses | Living the Country Life
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Botulism in horses

Botulism is one of the most potent toxins known, and horses are a very susceptible species

Botulism is caused by toxins produced by a bacterium in low-or-no-oxygen environments, and can be deadly to horses. They usually ingest the toxins in their feedstuffs. Eating trampled hay, or hay that was baled with an animal carcass puts them at risk. Although rare, botulism can also develop when the bacteria settles deep into an open wound.

Bryan Waldridge is a veterinarian with Kentucky Equine Research. He says the signs of botulism poisoning are subtle, but infected horses will usually have difficulty eating. One way to tell is with the “grain test.”  Offer the horse a cup of grain, and watch.

"The normal horse should clean that up pretty quickly, within a minute-or-two. The horses with botulism, because they have weakness especially of their face and their throat, won’t be able to clean that grain up quickly," says Waldridge. "You may see the horse trying to eat with its teeth rather than with its lips, chasing the feed around in the feed tub, sometimes you can even see saliva and feed coming out of the horse’s nostrils because the horse can’t swallow it normally."

As the disease progresses, it goes to their nerves and skeletal muscles. Untreated, it causes paralysis, and is almost always fatal. There is no specific treatment, but Waldridge says there are anti-serums available. You will also need to provide supportive care.

"You may have to tube feed them periodically just to get some nutrition into them. Generally they’re going to be put on some IV fluids just to keep them hydrated as well. Try to get the horse to stand with slings or some human assistance to prevent bedsores and rubs, and things like that," says Waldridge. "And just waiting on time to let those little terminals there between the nerve and the muscle regenerate themselves because that’s all you can do, is wait them out."

There is a preventative vaccine, but Waldridge says it’s regional. Talk to your veterinarian to see if your horse should have it.

Learn more about botulism in horses

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