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What is Foxtail Barley Poisoning?

Many people are familiar with the plant known as foxtail barley.  It can be found in many regions of varying climates and soil types.  It is actually decent vegetation for your horse to eat before the seeds develop.  The seeds form awns with barbs that can become easily lodged into your horse’s skin; especially the sensitive skin of the mouth and eyes.  Typical symptoms of foxtail barley ingestion include excessive salivation, difficulty eating or lack of appetite.  

While you may pull the plant stem out of your horse, the seed with the barb may remain; this can lead to abscess formation.  It would be best to contact your veterinarian so she can properly examine your horse’s mouth and offer him supportive therapies if needed.  With anti-inflammatory medications, pain medications, and sometimes an antibiotic, prognosis of recovery is good.

Foxtail barley produces awns with barbs that can become lodged into your horse’s mouth, skin, or eye.  If you see vegetation sticking out of your horse’s skin, inform your veterinarian.

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Symptoms of Foxtail Barley Poisoning in Horses

Symptoms of poisoning may include:

  • Excessive salivation
  • Difficulty eating
  • Lack of appetite 
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Skin trauma
  • Eye trauma 
  • Abscesses 

Types

The foxtail barley plant can become imbedded in your horse’s mucous membranes of the gums, cheeks, and tongue leading to many of the symptoms listed above.  This plant has the scientific name of Hordeum jubatum or the species can vary depending on which plant you are discussing.  This plant is commonly found along roadsides, meadows, pastures, moist soils, and disturbed areas.

Causes of Foxtail Barley Poisoning in Horses

Your horse is not necessarily “poisoned” by the foxtail barley; it is more that the seeds form awns that can become embedded in your horse’s mouth, eye, and skin.  Before the seed forms, this plant is actually considered fair to good forage for horses.  However, the seed heads have small sharp barbs along the edge which is troublesome for your horse.

Diagnosis of Foxtail Barley Poisoning in Horses

While your horse’s issues may seem to be concentrated in his mouth or around his head, your veterinarian will still conduct a full physical exam.  She will make note of all of his symptoms, ask you when each symptom began, and whether your horse has been improving or worsening.  The smallest detail may help her rule out other possible causes of his symptoms.   It is recommended you keep him safe in a stall or similar area during his diagnostic and recovery process.

She will take a close look into and around his mouth for evidence for the cause of his symptoms.  She may need to give him a mild sedative as most horses do not willing keep their mouths open for extended periods of time, especially if he is in pain.  She may notice inflammation and irritation in a lot of the mouth as a whole.  In some cases she may even be able to find a piece of the barley still stuck in his mouth.  

She may want to perform lab work so she can check his organ values and levels in his blood just to ensure he is not suffering from anything else.  She will suggest a complete blood count (CBC) and chemistry panel to check for abnormalities.  

She may also want to check the feed you have been offering him or take a look at the pasture he was on.  This plant is common in many areas making many people familiar with its appearance and effects on animals who  ingest it.

If there is trauma to the eye, your veterinarian may want to perform a fluorescein stain test to check for an ulcer or scratch on the eye.  She may also want to check tear production and for any type of puncture or other injury.

Treatment of Foxtail Barley Poisoning in Horses

Your veterinarian can provide your horse with supportive care and supplemental therapies in response to his ailment.  She can offer him pain medications, anti-inflammatory medications, and an appetite stimulant if needed.  She may also want to administer fluid therapy to ensure he does not get dehydrated from his lack of wanting to drink.  In more severe cases of loss of appetite or anorexia, she may attempt to tube feed him.  If he does not eat, his digestive tract may come to a stop which would lead to numerous other issues.   

If his eye has suffered a trauma, she will apply treatment as she deems fit.  Eyes are very delicate so proper treatment is a must.  If left untreated for too long, it can cause permanent damage to your horse’s eye or possibly even blindness.

If an abscess has developed as a secondary issue from the foxtail barley ingestion, she will address and treat it appropriately.  Depending where the abscess is, she may drain it and apply a medication topically.  She may also administer oral or injectable antibiotics to combat infection.

Recovery of Foxtail Barley Poisoning in Horses

Preventing the ingestion of foxtail barley once the seeds have grown in is ideal.  However, this is not always so easy.  If your horse if one of those who ingests the plant and is now experiencing some medical issues, he needs to see his veterinarian.  As long as the issue is addressed in a timely manner, his prognosis of recovery is good.