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What is Sand Sage Poisoning ?

This plant, also known as sand sagebrush, found in the midwest and western areas of the United States is not particularly tasty to horses but is toxic to them.  It contains volatile oils which are toxic to horses and causes problems with regard to the functions of the neurological system.  Though the cases of sand sage poisoning in horses which have been reported have been rare, the toxins can cause neurological problems which include ataxia (a neurological sign which consists of lack of muscle coordination and control). Generally, horses will not eat sand sage when foraging unless forage is scarce or the pasture is overgrazed.

Sand sage poisoning is the result of ingestion of the sand sage plant from the Asteraceae family which contains toxins that affect the nervous system of the host.

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Symptoms of Sand Sage Poisoning in Horses

The consumption of sand sage or sand sagebrush causes the toxins which are contained in the plant to be released into the body of the horse, intoxicating him.  Depending on the amount which has been ingested, here are some symptoms which might be noted:

  • The horse may fall down and lose muscle control
  • Abnormal behaviors like circling
  • Excitability and unpredictability
  • Gait abnormalities
  • Loss of balance

Unlike some toxicities, horses who are suffering from sand sage poisoning have a normal appetite, temperature, respiration and pulse rate.

Types  

There are no particular types of sand sage poisoning in horses except as that which pertains to the mild and severe extremes of ingestion of the plant.  The horse will suffer some of the above symptoms to the degree that corresponds with the amount he has ingested.  The intoxication from the volatile oils, sesquiterpene lactones and monoterpenes (extracts from the Asteraceae plant family) builds up in the horse’s system as he munches away.  The toxicity of sage exists for horses but does not have the same effect on cattle, sheep, goats and other wild ruminants.

Causes of Sand Sage Poisoning in Horses

The volatile oils, sesquiterpene lactones and monoterpenes contained in the plant get into the horse’s digestive system and wreak havoc on its neurological system.  While the toxicity of the sage can vary, the seasons in which it is the most toxic to horses are fall and winter.  It is these months that the sage is the most available as it sticks up above the snow cover and is sometimes the only source of forage available for the horses grazing in the pasture.  

As a rule, the horse can eat smaller amounts of the sage plant without problems but, when the better quality forage is not available and the horse needs it as a larger source of forage, the toxicity risks increase along with the neurological effects.  The effect that the toxins have on the ability of the animal to control and coordinate his muscles can debilitate the horse in all areas of his life.  The condition is curable if caught early enough by simply removing the horse from the source of the sand sage and feeding it an adequate and nutritional diet.

Diagnosis of Sand Sage Poisoning in Horses

Your veterinary professional will require a complete history from you regarding the feeding schedule and the type of feed given to your afflicted horse.  He will also need to know what unusual behaviors have been noted and the duration of the unusual behaviors.  He will do a complete physical examination which will likely include noting if the smell of sage is present on the breath of the horse or if it is present in the feces.

In addition to your complete history and his examination, your veterinary professional will utilize the clinical signs noted by both of you and will determine the potential diagnosis, with the smell of sage being a major factor for this diagnosis (the smell of sage oftentimes differentiates sand sage poisoning, which is curable, from locoweed poisoning, which is usually fatal).  Once he has arrived at a potential diagnosis, he will develop and initiate an appropriate treatment plan as noted below.

Treatment of Sand Sage Poisoning in Horses

Treatment for sand sage poisoning in horses could be as simple as removing the afflicted horse from the source of the sand sage or sand sagebrush and other nutritious feed sources offered in place of the sand sage.  Intravenous fluids, rest and protection from the elements may also be recommended for your horse while he recuperates.  Recuperation from sand sage poisoning generally takes one to two months but is dependent upon the extent to which the afflicted horse has been affected by ingestion of the plant.  

Recommendations may also be given by your veterinary professional to rid the pasture of the plant or to make alternative arrangements for forage during the fall and winter months in an attempt to protect other horses in your herd from this same malady as the afflicted horse will not be available for production or performance during the recuperation period.

Recovery of Sand Sage Poisoning in Horses

It is very likely that your horse’s health will improve once the source of sand sage poisoning has been removed and the horse put on an alternative healthy diet.  You may wish to consider some of the various weed control options to control the growth of the sand sage plants in your pastures, especially during the seasons in which other higher quality forage sources are not abundant.  This will reduce the opportunity for other horses in your herd to suffer from the intoxication of this pasture plant, thus ensuring your herd’s continued production and performance.