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What is Poppy Poisoning?

The poppy plant belongs to the genus Papaver.  The poppy flower has an open frilly shape with a large centrepiece which makes it instantly recognisable. The red poppy with the black centre is the most known variety. While your horse may not be attracted to the plant because of its unpalatable taste, if there is slow growth in the field or if the field is overgrazed, your horse will eat almost anything to fill its stomach. As with any poisoning, you need to contact your veterinarian immediately to have your horse examined, especially if he starts exhibiting reactive symptoms.

While pretty to look at, the poppy flower can be dangerous if eaten in quantity by your horse. The plant can cause depression, sedation and even death.

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Symptoms of Poppy Poisoning in Horses

  • Increased breathing difficulties
  • Heart abnormalities such as increased heart rate 
  • Fatigue and sleepiness
  • Unsteadiness during walking or standing 
  • Behavioral changes ranging from restlessness to dazed 
  • Lethargy
  • Depression 
  • Slobbering and frothing at the mouth

Types  

  • The poppy plant is a member of the Papaveraceae family and grows prolifically in the toughest of places; the red poppy was the only plant to grow in the barren battlefields during the war-torn years in Northern France and came to represent the immeasurable sacrifices made during the war and is a symbol of Remembrance Day
  • The plant is tall and upright with large, showy flowers; the red poppy is the most well-recognised color
  • The common poppy, prickly poppy, Iceland poppy, and Mexican poppy are all poisonous to your horse

Causes of Poppy Poisoning in Horses

  • The toxins in the poppy consist of isoquinoline alkaloids, including morphine and codeine; while these substances do have positive uses, in excess amounts they can negatively affect the central nervous system
  • Poppies are known as a symbol of sleep and peace due to the opium that can be extracted from them that causes relaxation
  • It is these substances that cause your horse to be sleepy and unsteady on his feet
  • Unripe green seed pods are extremely poisonous containing a higher percentage of toxin 
  • The poison is contained in the leaves, flower and stem and seeds

Diagnosis of Poppy Poisoning in Horses

The poppy plant is bitter and unpalatable to eat, and your horse will usually stay clear of it unless it is hungry. It is hard to keep a watch over everything your horse eats, but as an owner, you will notice the behavior changes associated with poisoning. Removing your horse from the paddock to a quiet stall will allow him to settle and relax if possible. Quickly note any new plants that are in the field or that he is standing nearby, as knowing the cause of your horse’s illness is half the battle.

Call your veterinarian to examine your horse, as early treatment in poison cases is vital. Stopping the toxins before they reach and destroy vital organs is important to the recovery of your horse. Poison affects each horse differently, and often depends on the age of your horse, the health status and whether he is in good condition or not. Younger animals are often vulnerable to poisoning and are curious to explore the world and taste everything in it.

While older animals may have compromised immune systems that are unable to fight off the effects of the plant, dehydrated animals or hungry horses are prime candidates who fall victim to toxic plants. Your veterinarian will be able to advise the correct procedure based on his diagnosis from clinical signs such as fatigue, or tests done on your horse. Blood tests or a urinalysis may show that toxicity due to ingestion of the plant is affecting your horse, and to what degree.

Treatment of Poppy Poisoning in Horses

While overdoses on poppy plants are uncommon, it pays to be aware of the problem and know what plants your horse has access to and how they will affect him. A severe poisoning can cause serious neurological problems and cardiac abnormalities which can be life threatening. The immediate action once you notice something is wrong can be the difference between life and death for your horse. Usually, supportive care targeting the symptoms is the priority. If your horse has trouble breathing, then that is the first concern. Your veterinarian is your vital link to overcoming this condition. He will examine the patient and verify what needs to be done.

In some cases, hospitalisation may be necessary in order to administer oxygen and provide constant monitoring. Sometimes the condition will call for the use of radiography, an EGC or even an ultrasound to determine the condition of your horse and the effect the poisoning is having on his heart.  As some poisons are fast acting, don’t try to treat it yourself and think you can call him in later. If you wait to see how your horse manages, you may find out too late that he needs help. Your specialist will advise on the right treatment and medication that will give the patient immediate relief.

Recovery of Poppy Poisoning in Horses

Depending on the dose of toxin your horse has had to endure, recovery can take from a couple of days to several months. Prompt action in the event of poisoning is always the best course of action. Recovery requires patient care and time allowed to enable your equine friend to return to normal. Ensure plenty of fresh water is available to help flush out the toxins and rehydrate the animal, and provide a good quality hay and feed to speed the recovery.

Your horse may not feel up to exercise for a while, perhaps just gentle walk to build up its strength again will be enough. If you are keeping the patient in the stall, consider putting another horse nearby to keep it company, even if it is only for a few hours a day. Your veterinarian will advise on the best aftercare to ensure everything possible is done to return your horse to prime health.