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What is Skunk Cabbage Poisoning?

With an appearance similar to rhubarb, skunk cabbage, or symplocarpus foetidus, is a plant with a bad odor that can be found in the wetlands of eastern parts of North America. The plant grows low to the ground and may be encountered by horses during their grazing.

In all components of skunk cabbage there are insoluble calcium oxalate crystals that will cause severe discomfort and irritation in the horse (in his mouth and gastrointestinal tract) should the plant be chewed and/or swallowed. All parts of the skunk cabbage plant can be poisonous.

Skunk cabbage, or symplocarpus foetidus, contains insoluble calcium oxalate crystals that cause pain and irritation in your horse should it be consumed.

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Symptoms of Skunk Cabbage Poisoning in Horses

Should your horse ingest skunk cabbage, you may see the following symptoms:

  • Drooling
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Choking due to inflammation of throat and mouth
  • Showing discomfort/distress
  • Nausea 
  • Diarrhea
  • Cardiac arrhythmia

Types 

Skunk cabbage is not the only plant that contains insoluble calcium oxalate crystals. Other plants that contain these crystals include:

  • Arrowhead vine (Syngonium podophyllum)
  • Calla or arum lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica)
  • Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema modestrum)
  • Dumbcane (Dieffenbachia)
  • Flamingo plant (Anthurium)
  • Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)
  • Philodendron (Philodendron)

Causes of Skunk Cabbage Poisoning in Horses

The skunk cabbage plant contains insoluble oxalate crystals that will cause physical pain and irritation in your horse should he chew and swallow any of the skunk cabbage plant. The crystals are needle-shaped; the irritation will happen quickly and will usually stop your horse from eating any more of the plant.

Calcium oxalate is calcium salt from oxalic acid which causes immediate pain and irritation in any soft tissues it encounters. Inflammation and swelling can take place in the mouth, lips, tongue and throat upon biting and chewing a part of the skunk cabbage plant. Inflammation can also occur in the throat, esophagus and stomach if any sap or part of the plant is swallowed. This can cause internal swelling and pain. If the swelling causes the airway to be blocked, your horse may experience breathing difficulties.

Diagnosis of Skunk Cabbage Poisoning in Horses

Should your horse be exposed to the skunk cabbage plant you will likely see symptoms right away, though it can take a few hours for them to present themselves. If you saw your horse ingest the skunk cabbage plant or notice symptoms, you will want to contact your veterinarian. It is likely your veterinarian will want to examine your horse; it is a good idea to have on hand a sample of the plant that your horse ingested (or that it is possible he did ingest) so that your veterinarian can confirm what was consumed in order to make a diagnosis.

After conducting a physical examination, your veterinarian may choose to conduct blood testing, a biochemistry profile and a urinalysis to determine if there are any underlying conditions that are leading to the symptoms your horse is experiencing. The veterinarian may look inside your horse’s mouth to check for plant particles and may choose to walk the paddock and pasture at some point, in order to check for the skunk cabbage or other noxious plants on the property.

Treatment of Skunk Cabbage Poisoning in Horses

Rinsing your horse’s mouth and other areas that have been impacted by the crystals with clean water will be recommended in order to remove as many of the crystals as possible. Offering your horse something cool to eat or drink may help make him more comfortable. If your horse did not ingest much of the plant, rinsing his mouth may be sufficient to help him feel better. Your veterinarian may recommend that your horse be given a pain reliever or antihistamine. In cases where a large amount of the plant was eaten or the sap was ingested, further treatment requiring hospitalization may be necessary. This may include intravenous fluids and/or a medication to prevent damage to your horse’s stomach lining. Should your horse’s airway be swollen and/or breathing be difficult, intubation might be necessary.

Recovery of Skunk Cabbage Poisoning in Horses

Should there be any swelling of the airway in your horse, it is likely that further monitoring by your veterinarian will be required. The effects of the crystals typically disappear within twelve to twenty-four hours after they were consumed. Fortunately, ingesting a large amount is unusual because the pain caused by the oxalate crystals occurs quickly in the mouth of the horse. Should your horse ingest a large amount of the plant, liver and kidney damage can result. In cases of liver and kidney damage, regular monitoring of their function will be necessary.