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Botulism in Horses

By: Dr. Melissa Mazan

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Diagnosis

Your veterinarian will first perform a thorough medical history. He or she will probably want to look at your feed bins, and inspect your pastures looking for any rotted food or animal carcasses that may have contained clostridial spores. He will look at your hay, to see if anything, such as a dead mouse, may have been baled with the hay. Additional tests may include:

  • Physical examination that includes a thorough neurological examination

  • Complete blood count to look for infection and chemistry profile to check that all the other body systems are working properly

  • Your veterinarian will attempt to find evidence of the toxin in your horse's blood or food. Because it takes only a very small amount of toxin to make a horse very sick, it may not be detectable.

  • Certain electrophysiologic tests can be done to help differentiate botulism from other causes of weakness and muscle trembling.

    Treatment

    If the disease is detected, or suspected early in its course, an antitoxin can be used. Once the toxin is no longer free in the blood, the antitoxin is no longer effective. Other treatments may include:

  • Antibiotics that are effective against anaerobic bacteria, such as penicillin, can be useful if the route of infection is a wound, or with the toxicoinfectious form found in foals. For forage poisoning, where the toxin is already present in the contaminated food, antibiotics are not useful.

  • Good nursing care is extremely important. If a horse is recumbent for long periods of time, he will start to develop the equivalent of bedsores, and his lungs will lose their ability to exchange air properly. Horses who cannot swallow properly will become very dehydrated unless they are given fluids intravenously or with a nasogastric tube. They will also eventually need nutritional support.

  • Because botulism can eventually kill an animal by preventing the respiratory muscles from working, some animals will need to be on a ventilator. This is a very difficult - and sometimes impossible - thing to do with a full-grown horse.

    Prognosis

    In general, it seems as though horses with a slow onset of signs have a better prognosis than those in which the disease progresses very rapidly. Because it is easier to give good supportive care to smaller animals, foals and ponies seem to have a better prognosis.

    Complete recovery may take several months. By the time horses have actually recovered from the disease itself, they are often thin, weak, and debilitated, and a slow return to normal life may take quite a few more months.

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