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What is Crowfoot Poisoning?

The chewing of crowfoot causes a chemical reaction, which converts the plant’s ranunculin enzyme into the bitter tasting poison protoanemonin. The inhalation of the plant can cause blistering and swelling to the horse’s face, lips and nostrils. Rain and wet conditions can cause the plant to also be irritating to the horse’s limbs.  Crowfoot loses its toxicity once the plant is dry.

The ingested toxin (protoanemonin) causes inflammation to the larynx, esophagus and the gastrointestinal tract. The effects of crowfoot poisoning can be mild to moderate, depending on how much is ingested and the toxicity level of the plant.

Crowfoot is also poisonous to other mammals. The whole plant is poisonous including the stems, seeds, leaves and flowers.  The bright yellow flowers of the crowfoot have a higher concentration of the ranunculin enzyme.  This toxic plant is found throughout the United States, growing in pastures, fields and meadows. 

If your horse is showing clinical signs of crowfoot poisoning, he should be removed from the pasture he has been foraging on.  He should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible.

Crowfoot poisoning in horses occurs when your horse forages on this herbaceous plant. The scientific name of crowfoot is Ranunculus.  It is also commonly called buttercup, figwort and butter cress.

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Symptoms of Crowfoot Poisoning in Horses

Symptoms may include:

  • Swelling and blistering of the mouth, tongue, lips, face and nostrils
  • Excessive salivation
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea with or without blood
  • Weakness
  • Blood-tinged urine
  • Feces may have a very strong odor
  • Tremors
  • Low pulse rate
  • Seizures
  • Convulsions
  • Colic
  • Decreased appetite
  • Skin twitching
  • Paralysis (rare)

Causes of Crowfoot Poisoning in Horses

Crowfoot poisoning is caused by the ingestion of this toxic plant. Crowfoot is not palatable and is bitter tasting.  A horse usually would not forage on this plant unless:

  • There are no good plants for the horse to forage on
  • The pasture is overgrown and the crowfoot plant is intertwined within the good plants

Diagnosis of Crowfoot Poisoning in Horses

During the consultation, the veterinarian will want to know what symptoms you have observed and when they began.  He may want to take a walk around the pasture where the horse forages on. The crowfoot plant is easily identified.

The veterinarian will perform a physical exam which may include checking the horse’s mouth, nostrils and the inside of the mouth.  He may take the patient’s pulse blood pressure and palpate the horse’s abdomen.  He may recommend blood work such as a complete blood count and serum biochemistry to evaluate the toxic effects on the body or rule out infection, and a urinalysis to give an indication as to kidney function. In cases of severe toxicity, clinical signs may be more intense, including the twitching of muscles and convulsions. Fortunately, the instances of crowfoot poisoning are typically mild.

Treatment of Crowfoot Poisoning in Horses

The veterinarian may want to administer activated charcoal, which helps prevent the further absorption of the toxins into the patient’s bloodstream. The blisters on the horse’s face, mouth and nostrils may be treated with topical antibiotic cream. To help the irritated gastrointestinal tract the veterinarian may prescribe a demulcent, which will coat and soothe the stomach lining.  It is very important that the patient is not allowed back into the pasture until the crowfoot plant is completed removed. The further consumption of the plant will continue to make the horse very sick.

Recovery of Crowfoot Poisoning in Horses

The horse will need follow up visits to monitor his progress.  The prognosis for recovery from crowfoot poisoning is good.  

The proper maintenance of the pasture is imperative to prevent the reoccurrence of poisoning.  Toxic plants may be removed manually or herbicides may be employed.  Crowfoot is not only toxic to horses and other animals; it also depletes potassium levels from the soil. Depleted potassium levels in the soil can cause “good” plants to not thrive. Regular inspection of the pasture for toxic plants and weeds is important to your horse’s well-being.  Many plants are fatal to horses and to other animals.

A horse needs to have good plants to forage on. Alfalfa, trefoil, clovers, beans, peas, vetches and birdsfoot (legumes) can provide protein and calcium.  Cool season grasses that are beneficial and are highly nutritional are bluegrass, brome grass and orchard grass.  During the summer months grasses such as Bahia grass, bermudagrass and blue stems are recommended.  Additionally, forbs like kale, turnips and chicory can also provide nutrition to your horse. If a horse has good and tasty plants to forage on, he is less likely to ingest toxic plants that are not palatable.