Ragwort Poisoning; information on prevention and treatment from the team at XLEquine.
Ragwort is a very common weed, recognised by its bright yellow flowers. It’s often seen growing in equine paddocks, on rough land and on roadside verges. It can also be found on pasture that is particularly overgrazed, or in ‘starvation’ paddocks.
When it is growing it is unpalatable to horses, but when wilted or dried in hay, it loses its bitter taste and will readily be eaten but unfortunately retains its toxic properties.
The toxins in ragwort damage the horse’s liver; signs are often only seen months or years after the plants were eaten.
The liver is able to continue to function normally until at least half of it is damaged; this means that damage is often advanced before signs are seen.
Clinical signs of ragwort poisoning
Toxicity can be caused by low levels over a long period of time and there can be a delay of months or years from exposure to ragwort before the signs develop.
The signs of liver damage are varied and are often non-specific but include:
- jaundice (yellow discolouration of the gums and eyes);
Many of these signs are caused by the liver’s failure to detoxify the natural by-products of digestion and metabolism.
Diagnosis of ragwort poisoning
- Blood samples can show indicators of liver damage and reduced liver function.
- Diagnosis can be confirmed with an ultrasound scan and liver biopsy
Key ‘take-away’ points:
- Prevention is far better than cure; toxin accumulates after low-level ingestion over months or years;
- The plant is usually unpalatable but palatability increases when cut or dried;
- Either spray or pull up and burn all ragwort on the pasture;
- Purchase hay/haylage from reliable sources.
Treatment of ragwort poisoning
- There is no specific treatment or antidote that will cure the disease or reverse the damage to the liver.
- Treatment is aimed at minimising the work of the liver and supportive therapy.
- The horse may respond to treatment if diagnosed early.
- The diet can be altered to contain low but adequate levels of good quality easily digestible protein to prevent the overproduction of ammonia.
- A good diet for most cases is a combination of two parts sugar beet to one part maize or barley fed in six small meals daily plus adlib grass or hay.
- Dietary vitamin supplementation can help to support the liver but care must be taken because high levels of iron, vitamin A, niacin, valerian and comfrey can all further damage the liver.
- Milk thistle has been shown to support liver function.
Prevention of ragwort poisoning
- Ragwort should be removed from the pasture prior to seeding to prevent the spread of the plants.
For further information contact your local XLEquine veterinary practice or visit xlequine.