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Toxicity is increased in the leaves when they are stressed or wilted which is when most of the cyanide is produced. The plant has two different parts that usually never meet, but when the leaf is destroyed such as your horse chewing it, the two parts mix and the result is cyanide. Apart from the cyanide stopping cellular respiration, it also prevents oxygen from moving around the blood stream causing eventual suffocation. If enough of the leaves are eaten, it can result in death often within minutes of consuming it.
These plants produce cyanide which is lethal to your horse and all animals. The cyanide reacts with iron in the body to stop cellular respiration.
A lot depends on the amount of leaves your horse eats, but a lethal dose will kill in minutes. In situations where your horse is grazing in a far paddock, if you are not near when it happens, the first sign of trouble is usually a deceased horse lying in the paddock, it can be that powerful. If you do see the symptoms of black cherry poisoning it is vital to get your veterinarian out straight away, and even then, they may not make it in time as the cyanide is that potent.
The plant usually keeps the two different components that make up cyanide separate in the leaf structure, they never meet. It is only when the leaf is put under stress such as the damage caused by chewing the leaf where the two components meet and combine to form cyanide. There is an antidote but it needs to be delivered as soon as possible after the poisoning, there is a definite time factor where the antidote is effective so time is of the essence.
Black cherry poisoning can be treated, but time is a big factor in this case. Because the cyanide works very quickly inside your horse’s system, the veterinarian may not arrive in time to save him. If your horse has become poisoned and is showing the signs, it is essential to be careful of your own safety and do not handle the animal as he will be very stressed and may panic and cause you injury as he struggles to breathe. Exercise extreme caution if your horse is in this condition. Your veterinarian will advise of the best treatment and will attend to your horse. There has been some success if treatment reaches the horse early enough; sodium nitrate and sodium thiosulfate along with supportive therapy in the form of intravenous fluids may help your horse to recover.
Prevention and pasture management is the best option. Many successful horse owners become expert plant analysts, they research the local plants, exotic plants, and become familiar with those toxic plants and trees that can cause your horse so much trouble. Even a black cherry tree that is in the next field can pose a problem, as the wind catches the leaves and they blow into adjacent fields. And your horse is very clever at devising ways he can stretch his neck into the pasture next door to steal a few tasty mouthfuls of food.
Your horse cannot be trusted not to eat toxic plants, and even if the plants are unpalatable, circumstances such as being left in an overgrazed field where hunger forces your horse to experiment with other foliage may be disastrous. Some toxic plants can vary in taste at different times of the seasons, being toxic at a certain time of the year. Therefore, it is advisable to get to know what the plants are so you know how to handle these issues.
Plants have been known to become more palatable when sprayed by herbicides, so ensure your horse is not grazing the field you are treating. Good management doesn’t need to be time intensive. When you know what you are looking for, you can use the time in the field as a great opportunity to just wander around the perimeter and check what is going on at the grass root level.
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