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What is Figwort Poisoning?

Figwort, whose scientific name is Ranunculus spp, is a bright yellow annual, biennial or perennial flower that can be found in pastures. Also known as buttercup, figwort can be poisonous in horses who ingest it. Figwort, a member of the Ranunculaceae family, is often found in North America and grows most successfully in wet soils, heavy clay and damp sand or gravel. Figwort can also be found in wooded areas, marshes, ditches and swampy meadows. 

A toxic substance, ranunculin, is found within the plant, which will lead to poisoning in horses. The leaves of the figwort are bitter, which typically keeps the horses from ingesting much of the plant, with the exception of when there is no other forage available or there is so much that it is hard to avoid.

Figwort, also known as buttercup, includes the toxic substance ranunculin, which can cause blisters on the lips of horses, as well as swelling in the face, colic and diarrhea among other symptoms upon ingestion.

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Symptoms of Figwort Poisoning in Horses

Should your horse ingest figwort, you may notice the following:

  • Irritation and/or blisters on his lips and muzzle; can also be present on lower limbs
  • Facial tissue swelling
  • Over salivating
  • Colic
  • Diarrhea (may or may not contain blood)
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Slowed pulse

In severe cases, your horse may experience:

  • Skin twitching
  • Paralysis
  • Convulsions
  • Death

Types 

Figwort, or buttercup, can vary in both appearance and manner of growth. Some plants will stay low to the ground while others can grow to two or more feet. Flowers can be regular or irregular with zero to 23 petals. While most are yellow, there are some that are red, orange or white with yellow centers.

Causes of Figwort Poisoning in Horses

The leaves and stems of figwort have ranunculin, which is a glycoside. When the plant is chewed or crushed, the glycoside will develop protoanemonin, which is toxic and causes blisters. This will taste bitter and cause irritation in the lining of your horse’s mouth, as well as his digestive tract. How toxic the plant is will depend on its age, the conditions where it is growing and how fresh it is. Times of early growth through the flowering stage is when the plant is most dangerous (this occurs during April through August depending on the species). Once the plant is cut, the toxic oil will evaporate relatively quickly, therefore should hay contain dry foliage from figwort, it should not be problematic.

Diagnosis of Figwort Poisoning in Horses

Should you have seen your horse ingest figwort or suspect that he may have, you will want to have him examined by your veterinarian. Bring a sample of the plant that you believe your horse may have consumed, as this will help your veterinarian to make a diagnosis. 

After providing your horse’s medical history, your veterinarian will likely ask you for information regarding the symptoms that you noticed in your horse, when you first noticed them and any changes you have observed. Your veterinarian will seek to rule out any other possible causes for the skin issues that your horse is experiencing. An examination will be conducted, likely including blood work, a biochemistry profile and urinalysis. In addition, your horse’s blood pressure, oxygen level and heart rate will also be checked.

Other testing may include the use of an endoscope to look at your horse’s throat and esophagus to determine if he has experienced any blistering or irritation, a fecal exam, a blood urea nitrogen test and a test to measure his liver enzymes. As your veterinarian seeks to determine if your horse has experienced figwort toxicity, he may also take x-rays to view your horse’s stomach or conduct an ultrasound to look at the soft tissue in your horse’s stomach to see if there are any lesions.

Treatment of Figwort Poisoning in Horses

The treatment that your veterinarian recommends will depend upon the level of toxicity that your horse is experiencing and may include the following:

  • An antibiotic cream that may help with any skin lesions
  • Intravenous fluids administered to keep your horse hydrated and provide him the electrolytes he requires
  • Fluid administration will also help him maintain proper kidney function and flush toxins from his system
  • Activated charcoal may also be administered to absorb remaining toxins
  • Antihistamines may be given to alleviate swelling or other side effects that your horse is experiencing as a result of the toxin
  • Depending on the severity of toxicity, your veterinarian may monitor your horse’s heart rate, temperature and oxygen level, administering oxygen if necessary

Recovery of Figwort Poisoning in Horses

Should your horse experience figwort poisoning, you will want to work closely with your veterinarian to ensure the best outcome for your horse. His recovery, in part, will be dependent on the level of toxicity he experienced. Should your horse have any scabs, they may be painful to remove so it is best to cover them in cream in order to soften them before attempting to remove them.

You will want to inspect any areas where your horse has access in order to eliminate any figwort or other toxic plant that is present so that you can avoid future experiences of poisoning.