Botulism is a serious paralytic illness caused by toxins released by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. It is normally associated with the ingestion of spoiled vegetative matter while grazing, and is sometimes referred to as forage poisoning. It takes about four to five days after eating the spoiled forage for symptoms to appear, but once they begin, neurological symptoms such as eating and swallowing difficulties are recognizable. This disease can occur in both adult horses and in foals. In foals, the disease is usually seen in animals less than four weeks old and is called "shaker foal syndrome."
Botulism is very serious and if left untreated, the disease is usually fatal. Unfortunately, even when treatment is initiated, the disease may still result in death.
Symptoms and Types
The toxin produced by this Clostridial bacterium causes motor paralysis which means that any nerves that function in the movement of the horse can be paralyzed. The signs for botulism in adult horses include:
- Difficulty eating
- Difficulty swallowing
- Difficulty breathing
- Food and saliva in the nose
- Trouble walking
- Head low to the ground
- Generalized progressive weakness
Signs of shaker foal syndrome include:
- Foal found dead
- Stilted gait
- Muscle tremors
- Inability to stand for lengthy periods of time
- Inability to eat
There are seven distinct forms of botulism: designated types A through G. Those associated with horses include:
- Type A: This form has been seen in several horse outbreaks in the northwestern United States (Washington, Idaho, Montana, Oregon)
- Type B: Predominately referred to as forage botulism because of its association with contaminated forage
- Type C: Known as carrion botulism because of the association with the ingestion of feed containing a decomposing carcass (e.g., rodent, cat, dog, bird) or from eating the bones of dead animals
Botulism occurs when a horse eats spoiled forage that contains Clostridium botulinum spores. These spores are found naturally in the environment. When these bacterial spores are ingested, they begin to reproduce and release their deadly toxin. As the toxin travels through the body, it prevents the passage of impulses from nerve to nerve, thereby causing progressive paralysis.
Only your veterinarian can diagnose botulism, and it is important for the horse to be seen as early as possible after clinical signs appear for any chance of survival. Botulism can be difficult to diagnose based on laboratory tests on feces or stomach content assessments of the contaminated forage. Usually, diagnosis is made when other causes for paralysis are ruled out. Clinical signs can aid in this diagnosis and location can help as well, if there is history of other cases of botulism in the area.