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Botulism in Horses

By: Dr. Melissa Mazan

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Botulism is caused by a toxin, or poison, that is produced by the bacterium, Clostridium botulinum. This toxin works by blocking synapses between nerves and muscles, and eventually, all of the muscles fail, including respiratory muscles.

C. botulinum is a spore-forming, anaerobic bacterium. This means that upon exposure to air, the bacterium goes into a dormant stage, forming a spore. This spore can survive indefinitely in the soil. Under the right conditions, the bacterium can leap into activity and produce large amounts of toxin.

There are three major ways that the bacterium can enter the horse's body and cause the disease that we know as botulism.

  • Forage poisoning
  • Toxicoinfectious botulism, or Shaker foal syndrome
  • Wound poisoning

    What to Watch For

  • Weakness that may improve temporarily with rest
  • Muscle tremors
  • Drooling
  • Inability to swallow food properly
  • Protruding tongue
  • Drooping eyelids
  • Dilated pupils
  • Gastrointestinal signs
  • Colic
  • Bloating
  • Dry manure
  • Recumbency (lying down)
  • Difficulty breathing

    Diagnosis

    Horses are exquisitely sensitive to the effects of botulinum toxin, so it can be very difficult to make a definitive diagnosis. Diagnosis is usually based on clinical signs and by ruling out other causes.

    Treatment

    It can be very difficult to treat botulism. It is possible to use an antitoxin, but it must be used very early in the disease to be effective. In some cases, antibiotics may be helpful.

    The most important treatment is good supportive and nursing care.

    Prevention

    Many of the guidelines for good husbandry are useful in preventing botulism. Throw away any feed that appears spoiled and don't expose your horse to any rotting vegetation. Make sure to keep mice and rats out of your barn and dispose of any dead animals carefully.

    If you are in an area that is endemic for the toxicoinfectious form of botulism (Shaker foals), your veterinarian will probably advise you to vaccinate with Bot Tox-B®.

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