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What is Saltbush Poisoning?

This tough hardy plant often grows best in the dry areas and has been considered a form of additional fodder for stock. Your horse may not seem as attracted to it as other animals, as it has a slightly unpalatable taste. In small doses it is alright but it is when a hungry animal has little to eat and has saltbush as its main food that the problem occurs. Too much can cause a condition known as big head, whereby your horse’s head will swell up because of the build-up of toxins and can cause severe illness.

Saltbush is a hardy shrub that contains oxalates, which if eaten in large amounts can affect the health of your horse.

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Symptoms of Saltbush Poisoning in Horses

  • Unsteadiness and uncoordinated movements often called the blind staggers 
  • Nervousness and fear 
  • Depression
  • Decreased appetite
  • Loss of hair – thinning of the tail and mane 
  • Weight loss and emaciation  
  • Cracked and deformed hooves 
  • Respiratory difficulties 
  • Lameness
  • Paralysis 

Types  

  • Acute intoxication – There is no treatment for acute selenium toxicoses from excessive saltbush, the only thing is supportive care 
  • Chronic intoxication - This includes alkali disease and blind staggers and often results from accumulated amounts over a long period of time; the hooves are often affected with the coronary bands cracking and even the hoof wall may break away (a new hoof will grow in as long as the mineral overdose is addressed)

Causes of Saltbush Poisoning in Horses

  • Too much selenium in the diet can play havoc with the health of your horse
  • Your horse can be affected by selenium rich water so it pays to test the water supply 
  • Lack of variety and quality feed can cause your horse to experiment with less attractive forms of food 
  • The selenium content varies in the plant depending on the soil and how rich it is in the mineral

Diagnosis of Saltbush Poisoning in Horses

Visual observation is usually the first thing to diagnosis – if you notice the tail and mane becoming thin, your horse is quite nervous, staggers a bit, or if your horse’s hooves become cracked or they are causing lameness, then you will know that all is not right. Noting where your horse has been grazing and isolating the plant or shrub in the case of saltbush, and removing other horses if they are grazing in the same area is essential. This history and action will help your veterinarian to determine what is causing the problem. 

Your veterinarian will give your horse an examination to determine what is happening, with the diagnosis made by clinical signs alone usually. Tissue samples can be done to confirm the diagnosis. Hoof samples can also be tested for selenium toxicity. The higher the selenium content the easier it is to get a positive result. One thing to note is that if your horse exhibits signs of the blind staggers, it can look very similar to those of rabies, so it is important to avoid contact with the saliva until diagnosis is determined, as rabies can be transmitted to humans and it is unfortunately always fatal.

Treatment of Saltbush Poisoning in Horses

Depending on the length of time your horse has been affected, treatment from a qualified equine veterinarian will vary depending on this factor. There is no treatment for acute poisoning, while the treatment for chronic poisoning relies on reducing the intake of the mineral and treatment for the hoof lesions. Your horse should be provided with a high protein balance diet. For damage already done, you are best to work with your veterinarian and farrier as they will assist your horse throughout the process. 

The thing to note here is to be aware of the selenium content of your pastures – a soil expert will be able to help you here. Also, make sure you check the source where you obtained your hay from, as some areas will have an abundance of selenium rich forages that get bundled in the hay and can affect your horse. Another early warning symptom is if your horse’s hair begins to fall out of the tail and mane, if you see this happening act immediately to have your horse examined thoroughly by your veterinarian. The longer your horse is exposed to a high level of selenium the harder the recovery will be due to the extent of the damage this mineral can cause.

Recovery of Saltbush Poisoning in Horses

Removal from the field or area where saltbush is growing and supportive care for your horse is the most you can do for your horse. Your veterinarian will advise on any special treatment and will no doubt keep checking on your horse’s progress as it recovers. It is important to note that if the condition is acute, recovery may not be an option. As always it depends on the time your horse has been exposed and the amount of damage done to organs and tissue. Pasture management is always the best practice to put in place, noting any effects your animals are having to plants and bushes. Getting to know the poisonous plants that live in your area is the best course of action, as the moment you identify these and remove them, the better for your horse.