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What is Chinaberry Tree Poisoning ?

The Chinaberry tree (Melia azedarach) is known by many names and is part of the mahogany (Meliaceae) family, native to Australasia and Indomalaya. A mature tree normally grows up to 40 feet, but has been known to grow as high as 150 feet. It has dark green leaves, about 20 inches long and clusters of sweet smelling light purple flowers. They grow light yellow marble sized fruit that gradually become white and wrinkly in the wintertime. The most toxic part of the tree is the ripe fruit.

One of the main problems of the Chinaberry tree is that birds will eat the seeds and disperse them in other places in their droppings, creating more toxic Chinaberry trees elsewhere. Although many birds are able to eat Chinaberry tree fruit without side effects, some have been reported to become paralyzed after consumption.

Chinaberry tree poisoning is a dangerous condition in horses and can be fatal if not treated right away. The berries are the most toxic, but the rest of the tree is poisonous as well. In fact, these berries have enough poison to cause side effects if your horse consumes just 0.5% of their body weight and can be fatal if only 1% of their body weight is eaten. There have been cases of fatalities from the ingestion of just 8 to 10 berries. The toxins in the Chinaberry tree include margosine, tetranortriterpenes (meliatoxins), and tannic acid. Some of the side effects of Chinaberry tree poisoning include depression, colic, seizures, and death.

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Symptoms of Chinaberry Tree Poisoning in Horses

The symptoms of Chinaberry tree poisoning depend on how much and which part was eaten. However, the most common signs include:

  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Appetite loss
  • Abdominal pain
  • Blood in stool
  • Loss of coordination
  • Muscle rigidity and fatigue
  • Convulsions
  • Cardiac paralysis
  • Death

Types

The Chinaberry tree (Melia azedarach) is part of the Meliaceae family and is known by many names. Some of the most common include:

  • Cape Lilac
  • Indian Lilac
  • Syringa Berrytree
  • Pride of India
  • Texas Umbrella Tree
  • Japanese Bead Tree
  • White Cedar
  • Persian Lilac
  • Paradise Tree
  • China Ball Tree
  • Bead Tree

Causes of Chinaberry Tree Poisoning in Horses

  • Tetranortriterpenes (meliatoxins) causes severe central nervous system problems such as confusion, incoordination, seizures, and paralysis
  • Tannic acid can cause damage to the liver, kidney, and gastrointestinal tract
  • Margosin is an intestinal irritant

Diagnosis of Chinaberry Tree Poisoning in Horses

If you think your horse has eaten any part of a Chinaberry tree, it is essential that you call your veterinarian right away. It is recommended that you show a sample or photograph of the tree to help identify the poison in your horse’s system. The veterinarian will need to know your horse’s medical history; have available any records you have on hand. Also, let the veterinarian know if you have given your horse any medications.

To begin with, a complete physical assessment will be done including a lameness examination, body condition score, vital signs, and palpation and auscultation of the major body parts and organs. In addition, a blood chemistry panel, complete blood count, gas chromatography, and packed cell volume will be performed. Serum AST and CPK will be increased. Because the toxins in the Chinaberry tree affect the heart, an electrocardiogram is needed to assess the electrical and muscular function of the heart.

Treatment of Chinaberry Tree Poisoning in Horses

Evacuation

The first thing the veterinarian will want to do is a gastric lavage to clear any poisons from the gastrointestinal tract. This is done by inserting a tube through the nasal passages into the stomach and pumping in warm sterile solution to wash away toxins and plant particles. Your horse will be sedated for this procedure.

Fluid Therapy

Fluids are given by intravenous (IV) line to help the circulation and flush the kidneys. This also helps prevent dehydration caused by diarrhea.

Hospitalization

In many cases, your horse will be kept for several hours for observation to watch for complications. During this time, the veterinarian will be able to provide more treatment (sedatives if seizures or convulsions occur, medication for gastrointestinal irritation) when needed.

Recovery of Chinaberry Tree Poisoning in Horses

Your horse’s recovery depends on the amount of Chinaberry tree that was eaten and which parts were consumed. As previously mentioned, the berries are the most toxic and it takes less than 10 to cause serious illness or death. Once you are able to take your horse home, be sure to follow the veterinarian’s instructions and remove the Chinaberry trees from your property as soon as possible.