Could Your Hay be Killing Your Horse? Yes, it could! There could be toxic weeds lurking in it and you don’t even know it!
Here’s our horrible story….
On Friday, August 1st 2008, Scott and I purchased 5 bales of Bermuda hay from a hay dealer in Sahuarita. It looked like the perfect hay and we fed it to our horses. Everything seemed fine until the following Tuesday. I went out in the morning to feed and Cody (our very hearty trail horse) was lying down and in obvious pain. He didn’t want to eat or drink and had a very depressed look. Oh God, Colic!
I’ve seen colic many times in other horses but for some reason this time was VERY different. I checked his vitals and he was very dehydrated and now he was pawing at the ground. There was one point where he actually held his front leg up in front of him for at least a full minute. He kept his head down and looked as if he would fall over any second.
I called the vet and luckily Dr. Beers arrived at the house within a half hour. This looked really bad, even she thought so. She rushed the evaluation then administered a huge dose of morphine directly into his neck. He finally got some relief! We discussed the horrible option of putting him down right then but decided to try and save him with whatever we could do without going to surgery. At this point we had no idea what was really wrong with him as the term “colic” only means “abdominal pain” and could be caused by many different things.
He was so dehydrated that I.V. fluids were our only option, tubing alone would not hydrate him enough. So he took on 20 liters of saline solution in I.V. catheters on both sites of his neck (along with major doses of Banamine and Xylazine for the pain). Next came a nasal gastric tubing with mineral oil, water, and electrolytes just in case there was an impaction of some sort. Lastly came the dreaded full-arm rectal exam to also check for an impaction. Poor Cody, he just stood there quietly the whole time and took it.
You would think that after all that Cody would have started feeling a little better but he did not improve. We were at a point where there was nothing else to do but keep him comfortable and wait. So Dr. Beers decided to continue giving him I.V. fluids every 2 hours from then on and all during the night plus more Banamine. We continued that, every 2 (very long) hours all night. We dreaded going to the barn for fear of finding him dead. The morning brought no change and no desire to drink.
Wednesday was a long day, checking him every 15-20 minutes hoping there would be some improvement. Nothing! I racked my brain trying to figure out what caused this and as I fed the morning ration of Bermuda hay I noticed a clump of a strange looking dried weed in one of the flakes. It looked weird, almost like sage but with berries on it. I pulled it out and then sifted through the rest of the hay and found many small pieces throughout the whole bale. It was hard to see as the color blended right in with the Bermuda. Something told me to keep it and ask Dr. Beers what she thought of it.
Thursday Dr. Beers returned for another round of I.V.s fluids and gastric tubing. This time Cody urinated blood, a very VERY bad sign. Red flags went up all over the place and she suggested taking some blood and urine for testing. I asked her about the weed I had found but she did not recognize it.
Later that day Dr. Beers called with the testing results. All signs pointed towards some kind of toxin in Cody’s system and not a blockage as we had considered. His kidneys were still working but very “angry” as she put it. His body was really trying to fight something, but what?
My gut feeling told me that the cause had something to do with that weed I had found in the hay. After calling everywhere to find someone to help me, I finally got in touch with Dr. Glock at the University of Arizona Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory here in Tucson. He suggested that I send in the weed for identification, which I did that day.
He called me back a few days later and this weed turned out to be “Solanum eleagnifolium” (aka Nightshades, silverleaf nightshade, horse nettle) which is toxic to horses! Now we had an answer.
Scott called the hay dealer who sold us the hay to let him know what had happened (and to hopefully inform the grower of the problem) and the dealer’s responses were very concerning. There was no surprise or sympathy when Scott told him that his hay has a toxic weed in it and that it could kill a horse. He stated that “my horses don’t eat the weed when I feed them that hay, they leave it in the bottom of their feeders”. Implying that he knew there is a weed in the hay and that because his horses don’t eat it it’s no big deal. Well it is a big deal, especially when you sell a product and that product is not fit for its intended use and could possibly KILL the intended! If this was dog or cat food there would be an uprising (as we have seen in the past). Another interesting response he gave us was that it was impossible for him to know where that hay came from. Right!
Since we got nowhere with the dealer I called the local livestock inspector to inform him of the problem and to see if he could convince the dealer to inform the grower (so the grower could spray herbicide or something). The inspector’s response was incredibly alarming. He stated that my expectations, regarding the quality of hay I feed my horses, were too high and that it’s basically “buyer beware”!
Again, shouldn’t a product be fit for its intended use? Is this too much to ask as a consumer be it horse feed or baby food? It’s just plain crazy to say the least!
It was 10 days after the first sign of colic that Cody started to visibly improve. He did not want to eat any hay for weeks afterwards. I think he knew it was the hay that had made him sick. Now, almost 2 months later, he’s almost back to pre-illness weight and thankfully he’s getting back to normal. We are really lucky he’s a strong horse!
Our purpose in telling you our story is to hopefully prevent this from happening to someone else. It really doesn’t matter where the hay came from but that ANY hay you feed your horses could contain a potential killer.
Please look your hay over before feeding it. You don’t have to literally sift through it but look over both sides of the flake before tossing it into the feeders. It could save your horses life!
Sincerely, Scott, Christine and Cody Guinane Vail, Arizona