Thursday, November 21, 2019

Don't deck the stalls with these holiday hazards

Bad holiday d├ęcor choices by equine owners can truly become a matter of life or death. (It's nothing to horse around with.)

Nov 16, 2016

Pet Poison Helpline

Everyone loves the decorations and lights associated with the holiday season, and most horse people are anxious to share them with their equine friends. Generally this occurs without problems, but to guarantee a safe holiday season a few items should be avoided when decorating barns or sharing food and treats. Peruse these holiday cautions on items that should be used carefully or not at all around horses.

Live greens such as pines and spruce boughs are generally safe when used in wreathes or garlands but should not be wound around stall bars or placed in an area where horses have easy access to them. Chewing on the stems and licking sticky sap may cause irritation to the mouth and gastrointestinal tract, and dried sap in a horse’s mane and tail is difficult and time-consuming to remove.

Yew (Taxus species) is an exception—cuttings in any form from this poisonous shrub should never be used in wreathes, garlands or decorations on stall doors, on fences, or in barns or pastures where horses might have any access at all. The Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidate), a common landscape shrub, is the most widely recognized yew, growing well in almost all parts of the United States, but other yews such as the English yew (Taxus baccata) and Canada yew (Taxus canadensis) are also poisonous. The dark-green needles and attractive fleshy, red fruit make it an ideal candidate for holiday decorations, but the needles and seeds, dried or fresh, are highly toxic to horses, dogs, cats, livestock and people.
Widely referred to as the “tree of death,” yew plants contain several alkaloids that affect cardiac activity. Collectively referred to as “taxines,” the toxins inhibit sodium and calcium exchange in myocardial cells, resulting in abnormal electrical activity and cardiac arrhythmias. The amount of yew necessary to cause toxicosis in horses is very small—estimated to be about 227 g (0.5 lb) for a 454-kg (1,000-lb) horse—and the onset of action is so rapid (generally two to three hours) that most horses are found dead next to yew clippings, wreathes or shrubs. Common signs evident before death include muscle tremors, ataxia, bradycardia, dyspnea and seizures. Sadly, there is no antidote and most horses die even when supportive treatment is provided.

Other plants such as mistletoe (Phoradendrom species) and English holly (Ilex aquifolium) are less toxic but should still be avoided. It is tempting to place a sprig or two of mistletoe over a stall door, but anyone wanting to kiss under the mistletoe should be advised to bring it to barn for the day and take it home with them when they leave. Berries are the most toxic portion of the plant, but all parts contain some amount of toxin. Signs of mistletoe poisoning are very rare but include colic, dyspnea, bradycardia, erratic behavior, muscle tremors and seizures. Mechanical injury from the sharp, pointed leaves of English holly may cause gastrointestinal signs such as hypersalivation, head shaking and lip smacking and ophthalmic irritation or corneal damage

Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) plants have an overrated reputation as being toxic but are actually quite safe. They contain diterpenoid euphorbeol esters and steroids with saponin-like properties (detergents). The milky white sap released when the stem is snapped or cut can cause a contact irritation to the skin and eyes, pruritus, and hypersalivation or gastrointestinal upset, but the signs are generally short-acting and self-limiting.

Most artificial or synthetic decorations are safe to use around horses but need to be placed so horses with busy mouths cannot chew or otherwise ingest them.

  • Tinsel and ribbons, if swallowed, may result in esophageal choke, gastrointestinal upset, colic or an intestinal foreign body obstruction.
  • Homemade dough-type ornaments and decorations contain a moderate amount of salt and may be hazardous to smaller horses, ponies and minis that ingest more than one or two larger decorations.
  • Holiday stockings, especially those stuffed with treats and goodies, hung on stall doors, may be easily grabbed by a curious horse that would rather eat the entire stocking contents than enjoy the decoration. While most treats are not harmful, an entire stocking eaten rapidly may result in esophageal choke, colic or a foreign body obstruction. It is far better to hang all the stockings together in single location far away from curious horses with busy mouths.
  • Battery operated ornaments and decorations as well as loose batteries should be in a location inaccessible to horses. Chewing or swallowing a chewed or intact battery may cause irritation and burns in the mouth, an electrochemical burn in the esophagus, or an intestinal foreign body requiring surgical removal.
  • Decorating or dressing up a horse for plays, costume parties or just in good fun is not unusual. Care should be taken that these costumes do not have any loose buttons or objects that may contain lead or other toxic metals. As with all costumes, eyes and noses should not be covered and any body paint used should be listed as nontoxic.

Sweet treats such as chocolate and baked goods are generally harmless in small amounts, so there is no need to worry if a horse, even a miniature horse, eats a chocolate donut or small package of chocolate candies. The amount of theobromine, one of the toxins in chocolate, is harmful in larger amounts, so feeding more than a treat or two is not recommended. Visitors to the barn should be advised that feeding small amounts of any sweet treat, even crunchy carrots, may be hazardous to obese or insulin-resistant horses. Senior horses often have poor dentition and a high potential for esophageal choke, so all holiday treats including apples and carrots need to be broken into smaller pieces for them.
Caffeine-containing beverages are not especially harmful in small amounts, but beware the holiday punch made with ethanol. Horses are as sensitive to ethanol as humans, and spiked holiday punch is best left to adult humans and not fed to horses either as a treat or with malicious intent. Clinical signs of sedation, depression and incoordination occur within 30 to 60 minutes and may last for several hours, depending on the amount and concentration of ethanol ingested.

It goes with out saying that candles and other items that plug into any outlet should not be used anywhere inside the barn. While they are lovely to look at, the risk of fire hazard or electrocution is simply too high. Wiring on lights should be inspected each year before putting them up outside and kept well away from horses and other barn pests that may chew on the cords. Outdoor LED lights are safer and burn cooler, so, if possible, they should replace older holiday lights. Toys and ornaments with cords should be plugged into outlets in areas inaccessible to horses. If left in front of a stall, horses can easily drag it into their stall and start a fire or chew on the cord and electrocute themselves.

The holiday season should be a time filled with fun and festivities. Sharing this with equine friends is a common occurrence in most barns and with a little knowledge, common sense and advanced planning everyone should be safe and sound.
Dr. Hovda is the Director of Veterinary Services at Pet Poison Helpline and SafetyCall International, Bloomington, Minnesota.

About Pet Poison Helpline

Pet Poison Helpline, an animal poison control center based out of Minneapolis, is available 24 hours, seven days a week for pet owners and veterinary professionals that require assistance treating a potentially poisoned pet. The staff provides treatment advice for poisoning cases of all species, including dogs, cats, birds, small mammals, large animals and exotic species. Pet Poison Helpline is available in North America by calling 800-213-6680. Additional information can be found online at

As posted in

Sunday, March 17, 2019

To Psyllium or Not - Hay is the Answer!

Like many things for our horses, the basic, simple things in life are often the best. Check out this article by Monique Warren - Sand Colic - The Surprising (Simple) Cure & Prevention for a look into the effectiveness of hay vs psyllium husk in preventing sand colic.
According to studies at the University of Florida, hay is overwhelmingly the most effective way to move sand from the digestive tract and prevent accumulation.
Like salt, clean water and exercise, hay in amounts to provide adequate gut fill is essential for our horses' well being.  When grain or high calorie lower fiber hay is substituted for high fiber forage, especially when "meal fed",  horses become more susceptible to sand impaction and colic.  I recently spoke with a gentleman who has transitioned his high level dressage barn Warmbloods to grass hay, minimal grain and a quality supplement with elimination of long standing hoof problems and improvement in overall health.
It's not always possible to provide a "natural" environment for our equine companions and athletes.  They are stabled for our convenience and asked to work in ways a free roaming horse wouldn't. But they also benefit from advanced veterinary care and explosions in knowledge about horses' basic needs.  Slow feeders - whether hay nets, Monique's Hay Pillows, or one of the many other options now available - can play a part in creating a more natural environment, especially for horses unable to graze because of stabling, travel or metabolic issues.

Other things to consider - standing up for your show horse by refusing to clip their all important whiskers - called vibrissae - sensory organs which help them recognize and sort food and prevent face and eye injuries.
To trim or not to trim your horse’s whiskers? The jury’s out…
Gemma Stanford, the BHS Director of Welfare, told H&H: “The purpose of the horse’s whiskers both around the eyes and muzzle provide sensory feedback on the horse’s environment. The length of the whiskers determines the safe distance from unfamiliar objects or substances and enables them to determine unfamiliar characteristics of food or detect small inedible objects providing an environmental map.*
We can enjoy our horses while helping them be all the horse they can be.

Patti in Vail AZ
hoping that the First Day of Spring actually brings some Spring weather!
*PS - YES! that noseband is way too tight!

Quality supplements: while hay testing is the ideal, consider AZ Copper Complete or other flax-based supplements from HorseTech
California Trace at
Whiskers -
Feeding Practices, Equine Dental Health - and Whiskers?
Can Beet Pulp Replace Psyllium to Avoid Sand Build Up?

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Update on The Hardest Decisions

As I was updating and checking links, I found the link to Dr. Garlinghouse's iconic article on Deciding When It's Time, originally posted on Ridecamp,  is no longer active.  I have taken the liberty of posting it here, with the forward from Dr. Eleanor Kellon as posted in the ECIR group.
Because winter is often a difficult time for our senior equine and other furry companions, I chose to post it as a reminder - perhaps mostly to myself - to try to see things clearly before a crisis gives no choice.

This was posted by Dr. Garlinghouse on Ridecamp in the summer of 2007 and is reprinted here with permission (with a foreword by Eleanor Kellon, VMD).
The discussion below is an excellent general blue print for how to objectively approach the decision to euthanize. It is geared primarily to animals facing age/chronic conditions. There are also some acute conditions you may face that, while extremely painful to watch, will indeed pass. Hoof abscesses is a good example. These can be painful enough to keep the horse down or 3-legged lame most of the time but once the abscess bursts the pain is rapidly relieved. In addition to the excellent advice below, I'd just like to add that before making the decision make sure you know the cause of the pain, what the usual course of the specific condition is and last, but most important, forget about anything and everything that everyone else is telling you and take a private moment to look deeply into your horse's eyes. You'll know.
Also, if you are not faced with having to make the decision because of an acute worsening of the horse's condition give some thought to a ceremony/celebration on the day of passage. Let all your horse's friends say good-bye. Bring together those close to you so that you can laugh and cry together. Give him a good grooming, a nice walk, a meal of all his favorites and take lots and lots of pictures. This is the part of the cycle of life which we really don't understand and there's no avoiding the pain, but the level of your pain will be in direct proportion to how special your horse is. It's a tribute.

First of all, I agree with [the] comments that sending them on their way a touch too early is preferable to too late; and also that a shorter, comfortable life is preferable to a long, miserable one. That would also be my preference for myself, as well, though it hasn't yet been put to the acid test.
Since I'm a vet, I have to have "the talk" with owners on a regular basis. I also very often hear the comment, "this must be the worst part of your job." And that's not true, because in virtually all cases, I'm doing a profound kindness for the animal, and very often, for the owner as well (though they may not always realize it at the time, if ever). At least a part of why I chose to become a veterinarian instead of a human physician is because I can do for a suffering animal what we won't do for a suffering fellow human being.
So I think one of the first things to consider, when wondering whether it's "time", is that you are in all likelihood making a kind decision on your animal's behalf, at least when the animal is having a significant amount of pain just getting around. Please don't take this that I'm advocating "getting rid of any pet just because it's no longer useful"---I'm not. I have my share of creaky animals that will continue to live out their lives as long as I can keep them comfortable and happy. When I can't, then regardless of the personal pain their loss will cause me, it is my responsibility as their caretaker to relieve them of theirpain, even when that solution entails a humane death.
When I'm talking to clients that are asking whether or not it's time, I suggest that they make a handwritten list---don't just keep a mental tally in your head, because then it's easy to give yourself a selective memory when you want to avoid a difficult decision. Write it down and keep it somewhere safe and easily found. The list should entail all the things you know about that animal that define a quality, enjoyable life for THAT animal---maybe not even at the prime of its life, but as a happy, healthy animal with some good miles left. They can and should include big things like eating with appetite and enjoyment; the ability to move themselves to different areas to eat, drink, relieve themselves, thermoregulate and socialize; and they can be little, individual things like flipping their tail over their back to skip across the pasture, or playing fetch with the stuffed bunny, or wanting to go for an outing of some sort, etc (obviously, things appropriate to the species involved). It should, if appropriate, also balance the need for invasive, uncomfortable medical therapies---a gram of bute a day obviously isn't a big deal, while daily care of deteriorating, painful, non-healing wounds are another.
Just as with anything data-point related, the longer the list, probably the more accurate it will be in defining the animal's life. Then start marking off the things as the animal no longer can or will do them, or only does with great difficulty. And don't cheat. If the animal can only turn around by slowly hopping, or limping so that bystanders wince, or won't move at all when it easily would have a few years earlier, then it's time to cross off "gets around with reasonable comfort".
When you've crossed off half your list, it's not time yet, but definitely time to be paying more attention, and monitoring little extras to make their life easier. When two-thirds to three-quarters of the list is crossed off, it's probably in the not-too-distant future, depending on whether the remaining list-points are big things, or little things. It's pretty individual. IMO, when 80% of the list is crossed off, it's usually time to say thank you, I love you, and goodbye; and if you've crossed off 90% or more off the list, you've waited too long, which is a pretty poor thank you to a good friend.
These are just guidelines, not rules. The concept isn't mine, it was originally put together by some counselors that specialized in pet-loss issues, as well as other veterinarians and a random ethicist or two. I think it works pretty well, and not only helps avoid too-late animal suffering issues (sometimes), as well as hopefully some of the feeling that many owners subconsciously get of "I'm murdering my animal, I'm a bad person", which has been well-documented in multiple studies.
I think the key element in deciding "when" is not based on when is the kindest time for *you*, but when is the kindest time for your animal. It's rare that the two coincide, and if we're to be responsible caretakers for our animals, we have to choose to take on some extra pain for their behalf, so they don't have to for ours.
Susan Garlinghouse, DVM 

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Winter Salt - and avoiding dehydration.

A quick reminder - don't skimp on the salt just because it's getting colder.

Even in the Southwest with the crazy weather - record highs in the daytime and cooling down at night, many horses are less inclined to drink enough water.  In most areas, horses are transitioning from pasture to hay for the winter with it's much lower moisture levels - and even when pasture is still available the moisture content is usually much lower than spring and summer grass.  This transition is a critical time for impaction colic as total water intake is reduced. For older horses this is compounded by the lower levels of saliva they produce even in optimal conditions.

Can we prevent impaction colic related to low water intake?

Adding salt to your horse's feed will help trigger thirst and increased drinking.  If you haven't already made a habit of adding a Tablespoon of salt to the feed, it may take some time for your horse to get used to the taste - start small with just a sprinkle and work up to an ounce a day for the average horse. Don't rely on salt blocks - horses generally can't get adequate amounts from them - but a plain white block should be available as a backup.  If you see the block being worn down from use, that's an indicator you probably should be adding more salt to the feed.  Loose salt is a good option but you need to protect it from rain and monitor intake.

It's also important to monitor water intake. I prefer to not use automatic waterers so I can quickly judge how much water my horses are drinking. For an average size horse we want to see them drinking at least five gallons a day, and preferably closer to 8-10 gallons when on dry hay and feed.
Automatic waterers need to be checked frequently - and an alternativee water source supplied if there is a chance they might freeze.

If you do have automatic waterers, learn how to check you horses hydration by doing a skin pinch on the neck - it should "snap back" within a second or two - and press your thumb on the gums to check capillary refill - the spot you pressed should pink up again within 2-3 seconds.  A horse becoming dehydrated will appear "gaunt" - even if they have good body condition - a telltale spot to check is the flank right in front of the hip.  Another sign is "sticky" mucous membranes and manure that appears dry.

Whether your use tanks, buckets, automatic waterers or a combination, consider the reliability of your water source.  Could a storm cause power outages which will keep your well from functioning or cause the water company's pumps to fail?  Think ahead and prefill extra tanks and buckets if they might be needed.

In warmer parts of the country, we're usually not as well prepared for freezes and may need to resort to bringing warm water from the house if there is a hard freeze.  Lining buckets or trash containers with clean garbage bags then closing the tops will let you transport full buckets without half of it splashing out.

If you suspect your horse is becoming dehydrated, try to provide as much wet feed as possible - soupy beet pulp or hay pellet mashes, well soaked hay.  Even if the hay freezes, as long as the horse eats it they'll get the benefit of the moisture.

I'm saddened every time I hear of a horse with a winter impaction which might have been avoided by monitoring water intake and the most important supplement of all - plain white salt!

Patti in (crazy record high hot) Vail AZ