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An herbaceous perennial with over 15 species in North America alone, the death camas is every bit as dangerous as its name sounds. Though it’s a grassy plant with small white, green and cream flowers, and a valued member of the Lily family, this alkaloid-containing plant is nothing you should put on your Easter table. The death camas, also called meadow death camas and poison sego lily, is so toxic that it causes sudden death in fully grown, otherwise healthy animals. After the first nibble, a horse or any other animal trying to eat the death camas, will consistently and painfully deteriorate over a period of 24 hours or less. Symptoms of poisoning due to the ingestion of any part of the death camas include tremor, convulsion, drooling, a decrease in blood pressure, slow heartbeat, arrhythmia, kidney failure, coma and death, among others. It is no surprise that the plant is known to be one of the most toxic in its genus, Zigadenus, one that contains several steroidal alkaloids.
Alkaloids are toxic chemical compounds found in all plants. The death camas contains a toxic chemical called zygacine, which often attacks a horse’s kidneys. It’s important to realize that all parts of the death camas, including the bulbs, flowers, leaves, and pollen, are poisonous to both animals and humans. Humans have fallen prey to the death camas because the older plants feature a bulb that resembles a wild onion. A positive characteristic of the death camas is its particularly acrid, and unpalatable taste. This bitterness thwarts all but the most desperate consumption due to drought or lack of any other food source.
Unfortunately, horse owners have unwittingly poisoned their equine companions by feeding them hay that had been mixed with small amounts of seed pods of the death camas. In these cases, the horses endured days of colic, frothing, and diarrhea, but ultimately recovered since consumption was so limited. Due to so many incidences of impure hay and feed mixed with unknown filler, veterinarians and veterinary nutritionists suggest that horse owners have hay and feed professionally analyzed.
A highly poisonous perennial with over 15 species in North America alone, the death camas is capable of causing sudden death in horses and other large animals.
Diagnosis will rely heavily on the owner’s report of the incident, plants in the environment, exposure to any toxins, changes in behavior and symptoms of illness. First, the veterinarian will want to eliminate any other cause of toxicity, poisoning or death, confirm presence of the plant in the environment, and try to detect alkaloids in the rumen contents using thinlayer chromatography. If post-mortem, the veterinarian will typically conduct an autopsy.
Death camas poisoning, in most cases, has a fatal outcome. The toxicity of the alkaloids cannot be reversed. Often, if a considerable amount of the death camas plant has been ingested, death will occur before the horse is discovered. In cases of survival, IV fluids will help to lessen hypotensive effects of the poisoning. The age, condition of your horse, body size, and amount ingested will greatly influence whether your horse is able to survive the toxic effects.
Often, the prognosis in a case of death camas poisoning is guarded or poor. If irreversible organ damage occurred, the veterinarian may recommend euthanizing the horse.
The best way to take care of your horse is through education and prevention. Your vet can instruct you how to inspect hay and food for contamination. Frequent pasture searches, an awareness of plants and trees in your area, and environmental management are the best ways to reduce chances of environmental poisoning.
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