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What is Creeping Charlie Poisoning?

Glechoma hederacea is part of the mint family, and is a creeping perennial plant common in Europe, Eurasia and throughout the United States. Creeping Charlie is characterized by square stems that creep along the ground, at lengths of 3 to 4 feet. They sprout roots at the joints of the stems, and produce roundish leaves with scallop-like teeth along the edges. The purple flowers of this plant appear from April to July.

Creeping Charlie sprawls over the surface of the soil and forms a thick mat, which crowds out other plants in the area. It is found in neglected fields and pastures, in lawns and flowerbeds, and in ditches, along fences, and roadsides. Though it prefers rich, damp soil in the shade, it will grow in the sun just as well.

Creeping Charlie is another name for ground ivy, a creeping plant that is found in many backyards and fields. Due to its bitter taste, horses commonly avoid this plant. Occasionally, it can be rolled into bales of hay and accidentally ingested. Though only mildly poisonous, a large amount needs to be ingested to produce symptoms such as slobbering, sweating, and problems breathing.

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Symptoms of Creeping Charlie Poisoning in Horses

Symptoms of a poisoning from Creeping Charlie are often mild, and rarely lead to a fatal condition. Ingestion of a large amount of plant material is needed for signs to occur. Symptoms include:

  • Excessive salivation
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Excessive sweating
  • Dilated pupils 
  • Panting  
  • Respiratory symptoms, sweating
  • Anxiousness 
  • Bluish skin and mucous membranes

Causes of Creeping Charlie Poisoning in Horses

Like many members of the mint family, Creeping Charlie contains aromatic and volatile oils, which contribute to its bitter taste and toxic effects. For other species, it can be used medicinally as a tonic and stimulant. Horses, though, seem to be particularly susceptible to one of its components, namely glechomin.

While all parts of this plant are toxic to your horse, whether green or dried, usually a large amount needs to be ingested for a reaction to occur. Toxicosis has been seen in horses that have consumed hay containing at least 30% or more of Creeping Charlie, or have fed exclusively on the plant itself.

The bitter taste will usually dissuade horses from consuming this plant, but accidental ingestion does occur. This can be from:

  • Hay contaminated with Creeping Charlie
  • Pastures that are overgrazed
  • Lack of better forage

Diagnosis of Creeping Charlie Poisoning in Horses

A poisoning from consumption of Creeping Charlie produces non-lethal symptoms that are consistent with many other conditions. If you have seen your horse ingest this plant, or evidence that consumption has occurred, bring in a sample of the plant to your veterinarian to positively identify. Diagnosis is based on symptoms and a positive identification of the plant ingested.

If you do not know your horse has ingested the plant, then your veterinarian may run tests to narrow down the cause of your horse’s symptoms. Blood samples are taken for serum and blood tests, and often a urinalysis is performed. Often, these tests can show the presence of the toxin. Your veterinarian may detect the presence of fluid in your horse’s lungs, which is a sign of this particular toxicosis. Other tests may include X-rays or ultrasounds to ensure there are not any masses in the chest or lungs, and these can also reveal fluid in the lungs. As tests for other causes come back negative, your veterinarian will begin to look at your horse’s environment, which can lead to a diagnosis.

Treatment of Creeping Charlie Poisoning in Horses

Since Creeping Charlie contains toxins that produce only a mild reaction, treatment is generally supportive until symptoms have passed. This can include fluid and electrolyte therapy. Activated charcoal or mineral oil can be administered to reduce the amount of toxin absorbed in more severe cases. 

Removing your horse from Creeping Charlie is very important to prevent a more serious toxicity. Inspect your horse’s hay, and check pastures and any other frequented areas for the plant, and remove it. Ensure your horse has clean food and water to aid his recovery.

Recovery of Creeping Charlie Poisoning in Horses

Recovery from a Creeping Charlie poisoning is very good, as the toxicity is mild. Fatalities from this type of plant poisoning are rare.

While Creeping Charlie is not an easy plant to control, you should ensure your horse does not have access to it. Herbicides are available, and are often the only way to get rid of this plant, as hand pulling is often ineffective at removing all the roots, and mowing does not cut this horizontally growing plant. Be sure that your horse’s hay is not made in meadows with abundant Creeping Charlie.