Potentially Deadly: Acorn Toxicity In Horses

A 2015 study from England followed nine horses over a nine-year period that were suspected of becoming ill after eating acorns. Five of the horses presented with shock and bloody diarrhea—all five of those horses either died or were euthanized. The other four horses had colic and diarrhea; three of those survived and the fourth was euthanized.

Necropsies of the six dead horses showed kidney damage and extensive intestinal damage. It is unclear what compound in acorns is poisonous; tannic acid is often blamed, but it does not cause kidney damage. Gallic acid and phenolic compounds are thought to be involved and the bacterial fermentation products of acorns in a horse’s colon may create the most active toxins.

Though many people report their horses eat acorns and don’t become ill, acorn toxicity is more of a problem on some years than others; it is unknown if the acorns are more toxic in certain years or if there are simply more of them available on specific years.

Acorns also are dangerous for horses with metabolic disorders as they average 40 percent starch: They can trigger a bout of laminitis. There is no treatment for acorn poisoning; the fatality rate is as much as 67 percent. Though not all horses become ill from eating acorns, the very high death rate should motivate horse owners to avoid exposure to acorns and oak trees. Removing trees from pastures and fence lines is advisable, and removing downed limbs as soon as possible is also recommended.

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