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What is Sago Palm Poisoning?

A popular landscaping plant, especially in the southern United States, sago palms have also been referred to as coontie palms, cardboard palms, funeral palms, king sagos, cycads, and zamias. These palm-like plants in the cycas genus are often seen in yards and gardens in temperate and subtropical regions. Sago palms are hardy dioecious plants, with the female producing seeds in a large, plume-like and light colored cone that is located in the middle of the plant. Male plants do not produce seeds.

Sago palm is a highly poisonous evergreen that contains toxins that are fatal to horses. These toxins can affect the digestive and nervous systems, and cause significant liver damage. Only one or two seeds can cause severe gastrointestinal bleeding, liver failure, and subsequent death within hours of ingestion.

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Symptoms of Sago Palm Poisoning in Horses

While the sago palm affects the heart, kidneys, brain, and digestive system, most of the symptoms seen relate to its liver damaging toxicity, which will eventually lead to liver failure. Symptoms can develop within 12 hours of ingestion, and include:

  • Dark and sticky feces containing blood
  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Passing of blood from anus
  • Increased Thirst
  • Colic
  • Jaundice
  • Lethargy
  • Weakness 
  • Bruising
  • Nose bleeds
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Blood clot impairment
  • Liver failure
  • Seizures 
  • Sudden death

Causes of Sago Palm Poisoning in Horses

Sago palm contains three toxic compounds: the glycoside cycasin, a toxin responsible for gastrointestinal irritation and liver death; beta-methylamino-L-alanine, a potent neurotoxin; and another as yet unidentified toxin that also affects the nervous system. All parts of the sago palm are poisonous, but the seeds are the most highly toxic. A horse need only ingest one or two seeds to have a lethal poisoning. 

While most horses are not attracted to these types of plants, there are situations when they can ingest them. The leaves of the sago palm are palatable and tasty to animals, making this plant a very dangerous ornamental to have on your property. Other factors that can lead a horse to eat a sago palm include:

  • An overgrazed pasture
  • Boredom
  • Lack of adequate feed
  • Lack of healthy, green vegetation in diet
  • Accidental feed or hay contamination
  • Lawn clippings that are fed as treats
  • Ornamental plants that are over the fence line, but within reach

Diagnosis of Sago Palm Poisoning in Horses

Diagnosis of a sago palm poisoning is based on symptoms and the history of the plant being ingested by your horse. Bring a sample of the plant with you to your veterinarian for a positive identification. A plant poisoning can be more difficult if you do not know your horse has eaten sago palm. Your veterinarian will likely assume a plant poisoning has occurred based on the rapidly progressing symptoms, and may begin supportive treatments before a diagnosis is made. 

Tests that can help determine a diagnosis include a urinalysis to look for blood or crystals, a serum analysis to analyze protein and electrolyte levels, and blood work, which can reveal the presence of plant toxins. Feces can also be examined for plant parts.

A diagnosis can also be made based on the results of testing of gastric contents in deceased animals.

Treatment of Sago Palm Poisoning in Horses

Removal of sago palm from your horse’s environment is essential to prevent further poisoning. Your veterinarian may choose to walk your paddocks and pastures in order to identify the sago palm or other noxious plants that should be pulled out. Activated charcoal or mineral oil are administered to reduce the absorption of the toxin within your horse’s digestive system, and may need multiple doses. These actions are often followed by cathartic medication to evacuate the bowels. Supportive therapy may come in the form of fluid and electrolyte treatments.

Recovery of Sago Palm Poisoning in Horses

Due to the highly toxic nature of sago palm, and the rapid progression of symptoms that lead to liver failure, the recovery rate is poor. As it takes such a small amount of sago palm to be ingested to cause a toxic poisoning, be sure to seek medical treatment as soon as you see your horse ingest any part of the plant, or when symptoms appear. 

Prevent this fatal poisoning in your horse by simple identification and management strategies on your property or in areas your horse frequents. These can include:

  • Learn to recognize sago palm
  • Remove sago palm from your property, and any pastures, grazing lands, and trails your horse walks
  • Inspect any hay or feed for possible contamination with sago palm
  • Do not overgraze pastures
  • Monitor your horse’s grazing habits, especially when introduced into a new pasture
  • Keep your horse away from known areas where sago palm grows