Poisoning by Aflatoxins in Horses
Aflatoxins are one of many different types of chemicals that have proven to be toxic to horses, and they can come in many forms. Usually produced by a type of fungus called Aspergillus flavus, aflatoxins have been found in several different types of foodstuffs, usually to the surprise of the horse owner.
The Aspergillus mold is a naturally occurring fungus that proliferates in humid conditions, particularly in crops, hay, vegetation, soil, and grains. Aflatoxins primarily affect the liver where they lead to problems with protein synthesis, blood clotting, and fat metabolism. Aflatoxins in other species are known to be carcinogenic and can be immunosuppressive as well.
Symptoms and Types
Acute Aflatoxin Poisoning
- Severe depression
- Abdominal pain (colic)
- Yellowing of the mucous membranes (jaundice)
- Bloody feces
- Bleeding from the nose
- Ataxia (loss of coordination)
- Recumbence (lying down)
- Muscle spasms
Chronic Aflatoxin Poisoning
- Weight loss
- Rough hair coat
- Formation of hematomas beneath the skin
- Ingestion of food that is contaminated with aflatoxins. These toxins can be present in both grains and forages.
Definitive diagnosis of aflatoxicosis is difficult as the clinical signs are non-specific and mimic a variety of other equally serious conditions. Blood work will show elevated liver enzymes and other non-specific abnormal changes. There are, however, no samples that can be taken from a live horse that will definitively diagnosis the ingestion of this toxin. Sampling the contaminated feed is the best way to obtain a diagnosis.
There is no specific type of treatment available for aflatoxin poisoning. The best methods of treatment, and those that have proven the most effective and reliable, are by oral administration of activated charcoal. Activated charcoal is known to absorb toxins, allowing them to pass through the system without the body absorbing them. Other treatments are supportive. A low-fat diet that is easily digestible has been recommended and vitamin supplementation may be beneficial. The most important step in treatment initiation is to identify and remove the source of the aflatoxin so the horse is no longer ingesting it.
Living and Management
Inspection of foods for the presence of mold may help in the avoidance of aflatoxin poisoning. Additionally, horse owners should store feeds and hay in a manner that prevents the growth of mold.