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What is Branching Ivy Poisoning?

It is a low perennial herb that hugs the ground. Branching ivy has stems that are four sided and small bluish flowers will appear between April and July. Several square feet will be covered by branching ivy, making it more accessible for horses and other livestock to graze on. 

Branching ivy contains the toxin triterpenoid saponins and will cause your horse to become ill when any part of the plant is ingested. The foliage is more toxic than the berries of branching ivy, but if enough berries are consumed, illness will occur. Common clinical symptoms include hypersalivation, diarrhea and abdominal pain. 

Aside from gastrointestinal problems occurring, your horse can have dermal allergic reactions from the sap of the branching ivy plant. While branching ivy poisoning in horses in not generally life-threatening, veterinary care is necessary to treat the symptoms that have presented.

Branching ivy, also known as glacier ivy, needlepoint ivy, sweetheart ivy, California ivy and English ivy, is a part of the Araliaceae family of plants and can cause toxicity in horses when consumed.

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Symptoms of Branching Ivy Poisoning in Horses

Illness can come on quickly when your horse has been munching on branching ivy. If you notice any of these symptoms, contact your veterinarian for an assessment. It is important to note any changes in your horse’s health or behavior. Be sure to tell your veterinarian what you have noticed and what your horse has been eating. Symptoms to watch for in branching ivy poisoning include:

  • Diarrhea 
  • Hypersalivation
  • Abdominal pain
  • Colic 
  • Hyperactivity
  • Fever 
  • Weakness
  • Skin irritation around the mouth
  • Loss of appetite
  • Allergic dermatitis

Causes of Branching Ivy Poisoning in Horses

While branching ivy is very unappealing to horses, when forage within their pasture is sparse they will eat it. The toxin within branching ivy that harms horses is triterpenoid saponins. It also contains polyacetylene, which is toxic to horses. Both these toxins will cause skin irritations as well as gastrointestinal illness. 

All parts of the plant are toxic, but the most toxic element is the leaves. The berries found on branching ivy hold the least amount of toxins but can still make your horse ill when ingested. The sap of branching ivy will cause allergic reactions and while typically short lived, they can intensify and last longer when your horse is repeatedly exposed to the toxins.

The toxins in branching ivy remain active even when the plant is dried. Therefore, accidental poisoning through hay has occurred.

Diagnosis of Branching Ivy Poisoning in Horses

While you are waiting for your veterinarian to arrive, collect samples of your horse’s feed, hay and any plants within the pasture that your horse may have ingested that are not their normal forage. Remove your horse from their pasture and place in a clean, well-bedded stall. 

Your veterinarian will begin by performing a full physical on your horse. They will pay close attention to your horse’s mouth, looking for any signs of irritation and also any remaining plant parts in the mouth that can be taken for analysis. Your veterinarian will ask you questions about what your horse has been eating and their daily exercise plan.

There is no specific test that can be run to conclusively determine branching ivy poisoning. Several diagnostic tests will be used to rule out other illnesses and try to pinpoint the exact toxins that are causing your horse distress. These diagnostic tests will include a complete blood count, urinalysis, fecal examination and biochemistry profile.

Treatment of Branching Ivy Poisoning in Horses

Once your veterinarian has diagnosed branching ivy poisoning in your horse, they will set up a treatment plan. Unfortunately, there is not an antidote for branching ivy poisoning but the symptoms will be treated to keep your horse comfortable while the toxins work their way out of your horse’s system. Typically, branching ivy poisoning in horses is not life threatening. More severe reactions may require supportive care if your horse is dehydrated or is refusing to eat.

Anti-diarrhea and antihistamine medications may be prescribed to treat symptoms. Activated charcoal may be administered to absorb any remaining toxins within your horse’s stomach. If your horse is suffering a dermal allergic reaction, your veterinarian will prescribe a topical ointment that will alleviate the pain and swelling.

Recovery of Branching Ivy Poisoning in Horses

Your horse should make a full recovery from branching ivy poisoning. They should be able to return to normal activities about three to five days after the symptoms disappear. Speak with your veterinarian about your horse’s recovery timeline and when to begin normal activities.

Practice good pasture management and eradicate all branching ivy in and around the fencing of your horse’s pasture. Do a walk-through of the pasture once a week, looking for any plant that could harm your horse. Remove those offending plants immediately.