Common Liver Toxins that Affect Horses

Horse's internal anatomy showing liver in relationship to other organs.
Horse's internal anatomy showing liver in relationship to other organs. My Horse University

Newsdate: Thursday, July 15, 2021 - 11:35 am
Location: LEXINGTON, Kentucky

Plants and other sources of toxins that affect horse health are found in many areas and horse's are often exposed to toxins without the knowlege of their caregivers. Unfortunately, due to the liver's immense reserve and regenerative capacity, horses can appear normal until greater than 80% of the liver is affected.

Two horses grazing in large, open pasture.

Two horses grazing in large, open pasture

Due to the liver's immense reserve and regenerative capacity, horses can appear normal until greater than 80% of the liver is affected.
© 2013 by Cuatrok 77 New window.

Clinical signs are often nonspecific, and can include inappetence, depression, colic, weight loss, weakness, icterus (jaundice), yawning, head-pressing, abnormal behavior, and coagulation abnormalities.

Toxic agents can vary tremendously depending on an animal’s environment and geographic location.

This article describes some of the hepatotoxicants (liver toxins) that affect horses in central Kentucky.

Pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs)—PAs are found in a variety of plant species and can cause chronic liver disease and eventual liver failure with prolonged ingestion. Due to the liver’s immense reserve and regenerative capacity, horses can appear normal until greater than 80% of the liver is affected.

Severe clinical signs can then develop rapidly, giving the appearance of acute disease. PA-producing plants found in Kentucky include ragwort, butterweed, groundsel, and rattlebox (Senecio, Packera, and Crotalaria spp.).

Most PA-producing plants are unpalatable when fresh, although horses may eat them when other forage is lacking. The plants become palatable when dried and can pose a greater threat in hay. Poisoning can be prevented by providing high-quality forage and checking hay for weeds.

Cocklebur (Xanthium strumarium)—Cocklebur seedlings (2-leaf stage) contain large quantities of the toxin carboxyatractyloside. Seedlings emerge in early spring when other forage is limited and are readily consumed by horses. High concentrations of the toxin are present in the seeds, and horses have been poisoned by cocklebur seed contamina-tion of hay or grain.

Cocklebur poisoning can be prevented by providing high-quality forage and inspecting hay and grain for cocklebur seeds.

Aflatoxin—A mycotoxin produced by species of Aspergillus molds under certain conditions. Aflatoxin can contaminate corn, oats, or any other high-energy feedstuff. Mold can contaminate crops growing in fields, particularly if the plants have been stressed by drought, frost, insects, or other harmful elements.

Warm and damp storage conditions and pests also facilitate mold growth. Aflatoxin can be present in toxic concentrations with or without visible mold. To avoid the risk of mold and mycotoxins, feed should be purchased from reputable sources; stored in a cool, dry location; and adequately protected from rodents and other pests.

Blue-green algae (cyanobacteria)—Under the right environmental conditions, these microscopic organisms normally present in ponds, lakes, streams, oceans, and other natural water sources can undergo rapid growth (harmful algal blooms, HABs).

Certain species produce toxins, including hepatotoxins (e.g., microcystins and nodularins). Horses can die rapidly after ingestion, and animals are often found dead in or near water sources.

Excess nitrogen and phosphorus from animal waste or fertilizer runoff can facilitate HABs. Horses should be provided with fresh, clean water, and ponds or other natural water sources should be fenced off to prevent blue-green algae poisoning.

Amanitin—Toxin found in certain species of mushrooms, including Amanita, Galerina, and Lepiota spp. Mushrooms can appear suddenly in pastures and occasionally in stalls. Horses are less likely to ingest mushrooms than other animal species, but the best way to prevent poisoning is to monitor pastures and remove mushrooms.

Certain medications (e.g., phenylbutazone, flu-nixin, acetaminophen, salicylates, antifungals, and many others) can cause liver damage, especially if administered in high doses, for prolonged periods of time, or to animals with pre-existing conditions.

Accurate dosing and careful consideration of medication risks versus benefits can help minimize chances of adverse effects.Many other substances can cause liver damage and may be more common in different geographic areas.

Consultation with a clinical veterinary toxicologist should be considered when toxicosis is suspected.

(EquiMed Editors Note: Although this article is written with Kentucky in mind, the information is valuable for horse owners in many areas.)


Press release writen by Megan C . Romano, DVM, DABV in Equine Quarterly July 2021

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