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What are Sage Sickness?

Horses that have been poisoned by sage will have abnormal behavior, such as an intoxicated person would have. Your horse may become unpredictable and excitable when they are suffering from sage sickness. Horses will exhibit many of the same symptoms as those suffering from locoweed poisoning. But, horses diagnosed with sage sickness will recover once they are removed from the source whereas horses diagnosed with locoweed poisoning will not recover.

It will generally take your horse about one week to two months to fully recover from sage sickness after the sage plants have been completely removed from the diet. Ask your veterinarian about a nutrient rich feed that will help in the recovery process. Stall rest may be needed until the intoxication symptoms begin to lessen to keep your horse from hurting themselves or becoming overexcited.

There are several different types of sagebrush found in the United States, especially in the western states. While most of the time horses can eat sage without having a problem, it cannot be the main ingredient in their diet. Horses that eat a significant amount of sage, especially sand sage and fringed sage will experience intoxication. This is called sage sickness.

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Symptoms of Sage Sickness in Horses

Being a responsible horse owner means that you regularly check your horse for any changes in their health and behavior. Perform regular hands-on physical examinations of your horse so you can catch any illnesses or injuries quickly and seek appropriate medical attention. Contact your veterinarian if you suspect that your horse is suffering from sage sickness.

  • Ataxia or incoordination in the front quarters
  • Falling down when overly excited
  • Walking in circles incessantly
  • Sage smell on their breath and in their feces
  • Abnormal behavior
  • Can exhibit violent behavior

Causes of Sage Sickness in Horses

Triterpenes are the toxins that are found in sage plants. The actual toxicity of a sage plant will vary depending on the growing conditions and the season. They are the most toxic in the fall and winter months. This is when forage is at a minimum and sagebrush abounds. The unripe, green berries of a sage plant hold the most toxins and hold the greatest risk of your horse becoming poisoned when ingested.

Generally, your horse can ingest a small amount of sage and not become sick. Sage sickness will occur when sagebrush is the sole food source for your horse, such as in winter when it snows and tall plant is the only visible plant in the pasture.

Diagnosis of Sage Sickness in Horses

Although it may sound odd, but by smelling your horse’s breath and feces, you can generally tell if your horse is suffering from sage sickness. Your veterinarian will collect a feces sample and analyze it for any leftover plant particles that were not completely digested. 

A full physical examination, including a complete blood count and urinalysis, will rule out other possible causes for your horse’s sickness. Your veterinarian may also ask you to collect samples of your horse’s feed and hay for analysis.

Treatment of Sage Sickness in Horses

Once your veterinarian has determined that your horse is suffering from sage sickness, treatments can begin. Hospitalization is not recommended unless your horse is suffering from a severe case of sage sickness and has become dehydrated or refuses to eat. Supportive care will then be given in the form of IV fluids, nutrition therapy and plenty of rest. 

Most cases of sage sickness will resolve within one to two weeks when the sage is completely removed from your horse’s diet and your horse is given a well-rounded and nutritious diet. Stall rest may be recommended to keep your horse from becoming over-excited and to limit what your horse is eating. If your horse is suffering from incoordination, be sure to provide thick bedding in case they fall.

Recovery of Sage Sickness in Horses

Most horses will make a full recovery from sage sickness within one to two weeks after they are removed from the sage. In extreme cases, it may take up to two months for your horse to fully recover. 

In the fall and winter months be sure to provide plenty of forage that is sage free. Most horses are not willing eat sage unless better forage is not readily available to them. If you have an overgrowth of sagebrush, especially sand sage and fringed sage, in your pasture, thin it out or completely remove it. You can use a pasture safe herbicide on your pasture to remove any poisonous plants that may cause your horse to become ill.