Nick’s story – Poison Hay Disaster of 2015
|January 16, 2017||Posted by Melinda under Equine Endurance|
For this Media Monday instead of a question I’m sharing the story (with permission) from long-time endurance rider Nick that he posted on Facebook.
I had the privilege of meeting and riding with Nick during my first endurance seasons and I respect and admire the compassion he has for his horses and still remember the kind and encouraging words he gave me as a new “greenbean” rider during the first critical rides in Farley’s career.
I share some additional information about the plant and the toxin at the end of the post.
Nick’s Story: The poison hay disaster of 2015
Here’s another long detailed story that I wrote for the insurance company after we lost our wonderful horse Spice to the poison hay disaster of 2015. It details what we went through, and is valuable reading for anyone who owns a horse. It does have a happy ending for the rest of the herd, but was painful beyond description.
My wife and I live on a 10 acre ranch in Fairview, ca, in unincorporated Alameda County, on the border of Castro Valley. Our mailing address is in Hayward. We own(ed) five horses and are avid endurance competitors. We ride our horses hundreds of miles a year in organized Endurance rides all over the west. I have logged 12,000 miles; my wife about 8000.
In june 2014, we purchased 190 bales of grass hay from the Hay Boss in Fairfield, Ca. (I also got 20 bales of alfalfa hay) I found this company on the internet and called them about buying our annual supply of hay. I spoke to Chris, I don’t know his last name. He told me they had some really nice grass hay that came from either a special or different field that he normally did not have access to. I believe he told me they were getting about 2000 bales from this certain field. The hay was a good price, $18 a bale delivered. It was delivered on pallets of 10 bales each, which made it even more attractive. Chris told me he would need cash for this deal due to the owner of the field needing cash. On June 3rd I went to the Oakland Wells Fargo branch OAKLAND MAIN 2040 FRANKLIN ST OAKLAND, CA, 94612 and withdrew $3740 from my account in cash. A day or two later the hay was delivered to my address in Hayward. I looked at the hay before unloading and was very pleased at the quality of the hay- it was beautiful grass hay in very heavy bales. The driver unloaded it and put the pallets away in my lower hay barn. We began feeding the hay and were pleased at how the horses ate it. This hay was to be the main diet for the 5 horses for the next year. It made up 80% of their daily diet. We supplement them with some alfalfa and grains during competition and training to keep their weight up.
We purchased our newest horse, a 7 year old Arabian Mare named Spicy Knight, on May 14, 2013 from a friend named Darran Ross. We began her conditioning program and rode her several times a week. We did three 25 mile introductory rides on her in 2014, and in February 2015 my wife rode her in our first 50 mile ride in Ridgecrest, ca. We made a ride plan for the year that would have our horse doing about six 50-mile rides since the season starts up in the spring.
Our first noticeable sign of trouble came on April 10th, when I took the mare to a 20-mile training ride in Clayton, ca. My friend Teri pointed out that the horse looked like she had lost a little weight since last time she had seen her, about 3 weeks before. The horse did very well on the ride and showed no signs other than looking a little thinner.
Over the next 10 days or so we noticed she was indeed a little thinner. Her ribs were starting to show. Since she lived in a pasture and was fed with the other horses, it was impossible to monitor how much feed she was actually consuming. We put her in an isolated pen to give her a chance to eat more hay and feed. What we noticed was that she was not eating much. She would nibble her hay and grain, which was very unlike her. I went out and bought different type of hay and grains, but she would not eat that either. All she would eat was cookies and carrots. She would eat some green grass that was growing in our pasture, since it was the spring, so we took her and let her graze for an hour at a time in the grass.
We called our vet, Dr Carol Ormond, and told her the mare was losing weight and would not eat. I was worried about a tooth problem or mouth abscess, so on April 29th Carol came and looked and did not see anything in her mouth. She took the first blood and the results came back on April 30. The results showed a very high GGT value of 368, a measure of the horses liver enzyme. The normal value was between 5 and 35. Carol came back on Sunday May 3rd and took more blood; the results were the same- a GGT of 355. Carol told us we have a very sick horse and that she would need to refer it to the large animal hospital at UC Davis. UC Davis looked at Carol’s report (and specifically the full liver blood panel results) and suspected Liver damage, normally caused by one of two things: a physical issue such as a tumor, cancer, or damage from a gut twist. The second is damage from an alkaloid toxicity poison from ingesting feed that is toxic to horses. The first thing the Davis staff recommended was to get blood from our other horses since they suspected the most likely diagnosis is a toxicity problem due to contaminated feed. Blood was taken from our other 4 horses on May 6th.
We made an appointment for the following Monday May 11 to have the mare ultra-sounded to look for physical damage, and a liver biopsy to evaluate the liver for the toxicity problem. The horse had developed some bizarre symptoms that the Davis people said were consistent with a toxicity problem. She developed some solardermititus on her nose, (a photosensitivity to the sun), she started licking her corral pipe fence, and she wandered around a little in her pen. She still would not eat. I noticed that when I took her to the grass to graze I had to pull her along, as her impulsion was reduced. We did not see any real worsening of the symptoms during the next three days.
We saw a glimmer of hope on Tuesday the fifth. She made several changes in her behavior that looked to us like improvements. She started pulling me on the lead rope to the grass, and was moving around a lot more than before. She seemed to be eating better as well. The biggest sign was that the solardermititus went away- her nose wound seemed healed and her skin was back to normal in that spot. I called the head doctor at Davis and talked to him about the improvements. He said that sounded encouraging, so as long as she was showing signs of improvement we would hold off on the trip to Davis, but he wanted more blood work to verify if indeed the GGT values were coming down.
On Wednesday May 6th in the late afternoon we got back the blood results from the other 4 horses. The values were as follows:
Wabi, 22 year old Arabian Gelding- GGT level 112
Color, 17 year old Appy Gelding- GGT level 56
Donnie, 17 year old Arabian Gelding- GGT level 30
Warpaint, 31 year old Appy gelding- GGT level 28
The normal range is between 5 and 35, an average horse is about 10. (Donnie was 12 in his prior blood work a year before) Once the doctors at Davis heard this, (they learned on Friday while I was there with the sick horse) they knew it was the hay we were feeding that was causing the liver problem. Plant toxicity of this type is a long-term issue, in that it requires a horse consume 3-4% of its body weight of the toxic plant to cause a serious liver problem. Our horses had been eating the hay for almost a year as the bulk of their diet.
On Thursday the horse was about the same, seeming to look a little better, but on Friday afternoon I suspected something was not right. I took her to graze around noon, and she was having trouble standing up. She would nibble the grass, but kept tripping. I put her in her pen and gave her carrots, which she did not eat. She picked up her feed pan with her teeth and just held it for a minute or so. I returned to feed the other horses at 4 pm and found her standing with her head down. I also saw many more of the solardermititus sores on her nose and legs. She was covered with them. I called Carol and told her this was not good. Carol said get the horse to Davis now; she made the call to the hospital while I fed the other horses and prepared the trailer. I noticed a weird issue when I went to load her into the trailer- she normally hops right in. I led her to the step and she bumped into it with her front legs. She stopped, lowered her nose to sniff the trailer, then raised her leg to feel the trailer floor, then hopped in. I drove her to Davis, arriving about 8pm.
I unloaded her with my normal procedure; I opened the back door and go to the trailer window and give her a hand signal to back out, which she always does. She just stood there. I figured she was really uncomfortable, so I went to the rear and led her out backwards with her lead rope. She stepped out of the trailer and fell down on the ground. I got her up and led her across the parking lot; she tripped and fell down twice in the couple hundred feet to the building. The vet tech opened the double door; she walked right into the wall, next to the door. The first thing the attending doctor (Dr. Hunyadi) did was to check her eyes. She could not see anything- she was blind. She was in horrible shape- shaking, in pain, colicky. She fell down once in the exam room before they got the drugs into her.
They effectively kept her alive by giving her fluids and medications. Once she was under and stable, the doctor did the initial ultrasound to look for a physical problem with her kidney, to rule out that possibility, and it came back negative. He spent about 90 minutes with the horse, and told me the blood results showed the incredibly high GGT, and the amount of ammonia in her system was astronomically high. (One of the liver’s jobs is to filter out excessive amounts of ammonia. Her liver was not functioning.) It was now 10 pm; he suggested we give her a powerful medication to try and lower the ammonia level, keep her in ER overnight and see how she looked in the morning. I spent the night in the parking lot in my camper.
At 9am Saturday morning we talked. She had not shown improvement; the ammonia levels were worse. She was on life support. The doctors told me she did not have a good prognosis for survival; they estimated 10-15%. If she survived, she would not be useable for anything due to her liver being destroyed. To treat her would require weeks in the ICU (tens of thousands of dollars) and months to a year of medications. I called my wife and we made the impossibly difficult decision to have her put down. She was euthanized on Saturday, May 9th. The horse was sent for a necropsy. People have asked me why I made that call, and why not try treating her. If you could have seen my horse, you would understand.
In retrospect, one disappointing factor was when we saw what we thought was an improvement in the horse, it was actually her getting worse. Her liver function was gone, and the resulting buildup of ammonia was making her basically drunk, and unable to control her body movement. We wondered if maybe if we had brought her in a day or two sooner, maybe she could have been saved. The vets told us no way, her liver was not operating, and that she was much too far gone for her liver to be treated. Had we not brought her to Davis that Friday evening, she would have died on our ranch that night. At least at Davis she was somewhat comfortable in her last hours.
The doctors were convinced, in fact they told me 99% sure, that it was a toxicity issue caused by the hay based on the GGT level of the other horses. A necropsy was performed right away, but the results would not be available for 4 weeks. They wanted to see Wabi, the sickest horse, right away, since his GGT level was much higher than normal. They told me to bring him on Monday morning, and to bring three unopened bales of the suspect hay. (I still have 30 bales) I purchased my next year’s hay from the Hay Boss a few weeks before, and had been feeding the new hay for the past 4 weeks or so. I kept the 30 bales of the old hay to take to rides, since it was so good, and the horses liked it so much. They were planning to do an ultrasound on Wabi’s liver, to verify there was no physical problem, and do a liver biopsy, to get a sample to test for the toxicity problem.
I brought Wabi and the three unopened bales of hay to Davis Monday morning. They were backed up with emergencies, so the work on Wabi waited for a couple of hours. During that time, a tech from Davis went with me to get samples of the hay. She used a standard protocol- she watched me open the three bales, and take a large sample from flakes about a third of the way in each bale. We put the samples in ziplock bags, labeled them, both signed them, and got a sample of my new hay for comparison. We labeled that and she took the hay away. About an hour later the head doctor found me (crying, with my face in my hands) and told me that they found it. The three hay samples had visible samples of a toxic weed called “Common groundsel” (Senecio vulgaris)
* Common groundsel is a ubiquitous winter annual broadleaf, but can grow all year in coastal areas of California. It inhabits agricultural land and other disturbed places. Except for deserts, common groundsel is found throughout California up to an elevation of 4900 feet (1500 m). Infestations are most problematic during cool, moist periods. Plants die during extended hot and dry periods. Common groundsel contains toxic compounds called pyrrolizidine alkaloids. When ingested in large quantity, or even in small amounts over several weeks or months, they are toxic to humans and livestock. However, livestock losses caused by feeding on common groundsel are uncommon and most poisonings are due to ingestion of contaminated hay or hay cubes over a period of time.
*From the University of California Agricultural and Natural resources Statewide integrated pest management program.
The head doctor had done a visual inspection of the hay, and upon looking at it, he saw the Groundsel weed in the hay. It is a small plant, but the flower is visible if you are looking for it. If you did not know to look for it, you would never know. It was present in all three samples, but not in the sample of the new hay I had just purchased. (That was a relief) The doctor was so sure this was the answer that he canceled the liver biopsy on Wabi, since he now knew the reason for the problem. The hay was sent to the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory, in Davis Ca, for an official lab analysis. The final results, in a report dated 5/11/2015, request number 15C09510, determined that the main constituent of the hay was orchard grass, and Common Groundsel was present in all three samples.
UC Davis had found the smoking gun. It was the hay we had been feeding for a year. It was almost too much to comprehend. The Davis staff was very sympathetic, but turned to the immediate problem of treating our other four horses that were sick. They told me the treatment program, a very expensive mix of three medications for the two horses that are more advanced, and two medications for the other two for six months. The cost of the drugs is about $4500 for a two month supply for all four horses. The horses must have their blood tested approximately every two weeks and a liver panel done to measure the GGT level to insure that it is going down with treatment. The second instruction is no forced exercise. We cannot ride any horse for six months or more. My endurance season on Donnie, my primary horse, is over. I bought 2 months worthy of the medications and am now treating the other 4 horses twice a day, taking about an hour of my time every day.
At this point in time, June 1st, we do not even know if we might lose another horse. The treatment is long and slow, and we won’t be sure that it is working for another 4-8 weeks. We must insure that the horses GGT levels stay the same, or go down. We do not want to see them continue to rise, which would signify more significant liver damage is still occurring. The Doctors at Davis kept stressing to me that this is going to take 6 months, and the GGT levels will probably continue to rise until the meds cause them to flatten out, stabilize, then start to fall.
On Monday June 8th we got back the written results of the necropsy that was done on the horse. The results were conclusive that the horse died of a liver failure caused by a toxicity problem, most specifically the toxic weed Senecio that was present in the hay. Below is the summary from the report:
FINAL COMMENT: The liver was severely affected with a triad of histologic features (bridging fibrosis, biliary hyperplasia, and megalocytosis) that are considered highly characteristic of pyrrolizidine alkaloid (PA) toxicity. These findings, in conjunction with the reported identification of Senecio sp. in this animal’s hay, are consistent with PA toxicosis.
The 4 week blood will be drawn the week of June 15h and analyzed. If the GGT enzyme values are the same or lower than the original values taken in late may we be encouraged that the treatment is working for the other four horses. If the values are moving in a positive (downward) direction we can be comfortable that the treatment is working. I will not be able to complete the list of damages that we will be submitting for reimbursement until we are convinced the treatment is working, and that we will not lose another horse. It may be several months.
I have supporting documentation for all of the following:
1) The price we paid for the horse
2) The cost of her treatment from our vet, and the 24 hour period at UC Davis when she was put down.
3) The cost of the treatment visit at UC Davis for Wabi, the sickest of the horses.
4) The cost of the medications for 2 months and blood tests of the 4 other horses already spent to date.
5) The cost of treating the other 4 horses for potentially the next 4 months – medications and blood tests
6) The additional direct expenses incurred by me- trips to Davis, medical supplies, the money I have to pay a hired vet tech to come out and medicate our horses for the times we are away from home.
7) The price of the 30 remaining bales of bad hay I have to destroy
This letter above was written just as the treatment started for our other 4 horses. To make a long story short, we had the life scared out of us as the poison worked its way through the horses. In August, Wabi’s GGT went as high as 498, and color’s were 483 in October. The mare died with her levels under 400. The only reason color and wabi survived was the medications. Donnie’s level got to almost 60, which was the jumping off point to the astronomical numbers. Wabi started showing the same symptoms as the mare, and was going downhill fast. Judy and I had already decided that we were not going to put another horse through what the mare had gone through- it was too much. I had made the appointment to have wabi put down at Davis in 2 weeks if he did not show signs of improvement. Color was sick and getting sicker, and I was at my wits end because Donnie’s numbers kept climbing. This was the worst of it- I can remember feeling so helpless, and so utterly sad. It was a very black time for Judy and me during those 4 months.
In late August I was down at the pens bringing Donnie his mash, and I stopped on the way at Wabi’s pen. I stood there, watching him, feeling as low and sad as I have ever felt in my life. He walked over to me at the edge of the pen, and I was a little surprised. He stuck his head through the pipe fence and started eating the mash I had in my hand. I held it for him in utter disbelief and he ate. I put it on the ground and watched him devour it. He finished it, so I got him another. He ate that one, so I got him hay, which he started eating. I’d say it was a miracle, but it was the medications. It took Wabi 3 more months for his levels to come down from dangerous, but once he started eating, in January of 2016 his level was 93. Color followed closely about a month behind, with his levels coming from a peak of 483 in September to 62 in January.
The reason these two got so much sicker than Warpaint and Donnie was logical. They are equine vacuum cleaners, devouring every spec of hay they can get near; I use them to clean up the other horses pans. They ate more of the tainted hay. Warpaint’s teeth are shot, being 31 at the time, so he only ingested a small amount of the hay since he lives on equine senior and elk grove pellets. Donnie is my riding horse and is a nibbler, so I always had many different kinds of hay in front of him, as well as giving him grains, pellets, ultium, LMF gold, carrots, basically anything and everything he wants to eat. Over the year he ate less of the tainted hay as well. We lost our mare because she also ate a lot, but the liver toxicity affects young horses more than older ones, and the fitter the horse the better it is for them. That also helps explain why Donnie did better than the other two.
Donnie made his comeback ride at the fire mountain ride in 2016 and made it through perfectly. He has done a couple more in 2016, but I took it very easy on him as a precaution as I brought our new mare, Sorhsa, along. His GGT score is back to its original level. Warpaint never got really sick; his GGT levels returned to normal after just 2 months of medications. Wabi and Color took a lot longer, but they have both returned to GGT levels in the high end of normal. This is completely logical, since they suffered liver damage and their liver capacity will never be what it was originally. The good news is they are both healthy and happy, and were retired anyway. We hope they will live a full life, and so far so good.
It took some doing, and is another whole painful story, but I settled out of court with the hay grower’s insurance company for $34,000, the total amount of money to the dime I spent on the ordeal. I could not sue for damages, since I would have had to prove that the grower knew the hay was bad when he sold it to me. I don’t for a moment believe that. He was negligent, not malicious. What have I learned from this, and what am I doing differently? Three things:
1) I am buying my hay from reputable, large firms that have insurance. I have bought hay from mom and pop places in the past- no more. I’ll spend the extra money. Save a buck or two on hay? Not anymore. I’d give the $34K to have Spice back.
2) If the hay is not tested, I am having it tested. No more surprises for me. Groundsel grows in every state except Nevada. You can’t see it in the hay if you don’t know what to look for. Especially alfalfa, which it apparently likes to grow in the most.
3) I’m having blood drawn from my horses 3 times a year for testing. We did not know what was going on with our Spice until it was too late. Had we taken blood from her and seen the raised GGT, we could have treated her, and she’d still be with us.
It’s me (Mel) again.
Here’s what Common Groundsel looks like:
Similar to a dandelion, but but there are some differences. While the green part of the plant plant looks very much like a dandelion (at least the ones that grow in my yard), the flowers are different.
When it’s in your hay, it’s going to look more like this:
Common Groundsel contains Pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PA). It isn’t the only plant that contains these alkaloids – ragwort is another common one that is seen in hay. When the PA’s are ingested, the liver converts them to pyrroles. The pyrroles react with the nuclei of the liver cells (there are other sites too, like the lungs). It damages DNA and causes various changes in the liver cells, all of which the end result is a non-functioning liver cell. Unfortunately the liver does a very poor job of regenerating itself. The amount of liver destroyed and if other sites are affected (such as the lungs) determines clinical signs and prognosis.
The worst part of horse ownership and being a vet is how many bad things can and do happen and how little we can actually FIX. PA toxicity, horrible colics, career ending lameness, old horse arthritis. People tell me all the time that euthanasia has to be the hardest part of my job. Actually that’s the easiest. It’s the ones that should be euthanized that aren’t and the ones that die and shouldn’t and not being able to fix that problems that actually matter. Give your horses an extra pat on the nose, the dogs an extra belly scratch, and your family and extra hug today. You never know what tomorrow will bring.
Thank you, Mel and Nick for sharing this experience.
Do you know if certified weed-free hay would be safe from this stuff? Is groundsel one of the weeds the inspectors look for?
It should be, because the weed is considered a contaminant.
Just makes my stomach drop to think about this happening. Ugh.