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Equine Botulism Symptoms and Causes
 By Winniefield Park   •   19th Jul 2018   •   1,152 views   •   0 comments


A women in Nova Scotia is fighting for the life of some of her horses after already losing two and is worrying about a disease affecting the other horses in her equine rescue facility. The cause of the deaths, and the severe illness affecting the sick horses is botulism poisoning. And she is right to worry about the rest of her herd, especially if she is unsure where the source of the poisoning is coming from.

Botulism poisoning is caused by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum. In an anaerobic, or no-oxygen environment, like a horse’s intestinal tract, the bacteria produces a toxic protein that prevents the release of a neurotransmitter. This impairs messages getting from the brain to the muscles leading to weakness and a lack of muscle control. The symptoms of poisoning include drooling, inability to stand or move, tongue lolling, floppy tail, face and head swelling and total paralysis. If not treated quickly enough, the horse will die because eventually its respiratory system will become paralyzed. Unfortunately, a horse can show symptoms in just a few hours of ingesting the Clostridium botulinum, but it can also take days for the horse to show symptoms. So quick treatment can be difficult.

Most horse owners know that botulism spores can be in damp hay, silage and haylage. And, if you’re feeding any of those fodders, you’ll need to give your horse a vaccination that will help prevent poisoning. But because there are actually several forms of the bacteria, even the vaccine does not provide 100% protection.

Damp fodder or bagged haylage is not the only place a horse can pick up the botulism bacteria. If small animals like rabbits, snakes, birds or mice are inadvertently baled into hay or processed in grain, a horse may pick up the bacteria from the contaminated feed. Animal feces such as chicken manure spread on fields can be a source as well.

Water sources, natural or from stock tanks can become contaminated either from bacteria in the surrounding soil, or from small animal carcasses in or near the water. And, foals can develop a form of botulism, often called Shaker Syndrome through an unhealed navel. This is why it’s recommended to put an antibacterial such as iodine on the umbilical stump after a foal is born. It’s possible but very rare, for a horse to be infected by the bacteria through an open wound.

Unfortunately, the bacteria doesn’t produce a distinctive smell, or look in the feed, ground or water, so there is no way to know ahead of time just be sight or smell if the bacteria is present.

Like many diseases that affect the nervous system, botulism can be tricky to diagnose. The symptoms can look like rabies, EEE, EPM, WNV and other diseases. Once those other diseases are ruled out, an anti-toxin will be administered. The sooner this is done, the better chance there is for a good outcome. The horse may need IV fluids and other drugs to help it fight the toxins. Treatment can be lengthy and very expensive. And, there is no guarantee the horse will survive, even with prompt treatment and excellent care.

To avoid botulism poisoning horses fed haylage or silage should be vaccinated against the bacteria. Keep water sources as clean as possible. Hay should be clean and not have dirt baled into it. It’s felt that vaccinating mares in foal will help protect a newborn foal.

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