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Don’t Eat the Buttercups!

Don’t Eat the Buttercups!

By Betsy Kelleher

     I’ve always enjoyed the pretty yellow buttercups growing around our barn. Now they have become an enemy.

     Lady was fine before May 31st, when I wasn’t able to get to the barn all day and she stayed in her stall with the window closed and no fan and temperatures were high. Next day, Lady showed minor signs of colic and I decided that she probably got overheated.

     After I gave Lady a cooling bath and put up the fan and opened her stall window, she seemed fine. That was the end of it, I thought. It wasn’t until mid June that I realized she had acute diarrhea! 

     To make the long story shorter, after a vet bill and a whole bunch of tests, plus everything else I could try, including Pepto Bismol, stout beer, several tubes of Bio-Sponge (the new treatment for diarrhea) and taking her off everything except hay (which I personally believed might be the real cause), the diarrhea continued. For two weeks. All the tests showed only that she was anemic. No infection, no salmonella, no worm infestations. It seemed to be a digestive problem or possibly a virus, and we considered the possibility of an ulcer. I wondered if the stress of overheating started it, and if the beautiful green first cutting grass hay we got early in June was part of it, after feeding straw-like old grass hay for several months previously.

     The vet recommended antibiotics for several days, since nothing else was working, and she had her first dose on Tuesday morning, July 1st. Wednesday evening, just as my husband and I started to watch an RFD-TV special on Road to the Horse (that I really wanted to see), I got a call from the barn that Lady was down. Colic. I rushed over and spent a few hours walking her, massaging her belly, and taking her out for some grass. She hadn’t eaten her supper hay or drank any water since early afternoon. THAT was serious for a gal who usually drinks twice as much as the other horses and eats everything in reach! She wanted to lie down and roll several times, and I finally gave her a shot of Banamine I had on hand.

     While she was out eating grass and maybe a few buttercups, a storm came up and we went to the indoor arena while the heavy rain pelted the metal roof. Lady would raise her head, curl up that upper lip, and then start walking briskly. I had always laughed at that posture before, thinking it only meant she didn’t like the smell or taste of wormer. The vet told me that this behavior can also be a sign of abdominal pain! As I watched Lady go from her curled lip and fast walk to standing in a depressed frame, I feel sure he was right. She seemed so tired and withdrawn. It was not her usual pushy, Alpha behavior at all.

     So how do buttercups play in all this? I’m getting there. Lady came through the colic ok, and the next day she went back to eating and drinking after I offered her some alfalfa hay instead of grass. The hay she had refused to eat was the “new” second cutting grass we had just bought (and it was less green) because the first cutting was gone. I’m still not sure that the nice green first cutting grass hay didn’t play a part in Lady’s loose stools, but she should have gotten used to the hay in time, instead of getting worse. The antibiotics seemed to help, because as of Wednesday night she finally got over the diarrhea!  Since all the tests had shown nothing but low white and red blood count, we still didn’t have a cause!  

     It was at this point, Thursday morning, that my riding instructor, Cynthia Medina, walked out into Lady’s paddock and looked at all the pretty buttercups and informed me that they are poison to horses.

     I went home and searched on the internet for more information. And it was there, on several sites. Symptoms of buttercup poisoning include diarrhea, anemia, colic and abdominal pain as well as irritation of mouth and digestive tract. Hmm. One gal in our barn had remarked that Lady was eating funny, like her mouth was sore. Maybe that explained her not eating for awhile. All the symptoms fit perfectly, and the buttercups were there, and Lady was always the hungry one. At least 4 other horses share that paddock at various times, however, with no symptoms so far!

     I found one brief mention of treatment for buttercup poisoning. Take a horse away from the buttercups and symptoms usually disappear. If I’d known that sooner, maybe I could have saved a LOT of money! I did order something from Silver Lining Herbal for Lady’s digestion, because I’ve always had good results from most of their products. I had been emailing back and forth with the company, and after I mentioned the buttercup possibility, they told me they even have a specific product for “poison” treatment, although it is not in their catalog yet.

     I’ve learned a lot from this past month of dealing with Lady’s problems. Basically, I realize once again how important it is to get the right diagnosis as fast as possible. A vet can diagnose by running a bunch of tests (and they come back with no definite answers except to eliminate possibilities). It’s often up to the owner to take a closer look at the situation and even make a visible list (like Dr. House) with all the symptoms, all the recent possible changes, influences, whatever might be a cause.

     The buttercups have always been there. Why would they suddenly cause a problem? Only Lady knows for sure how many she has eaten, and she’s not telling! Go ahead and laugh, but I actually picked a handful, showed them to Lady and said STOP eating these yellow flowers! And she reached out for them, probably thinking I was giving her a treat. I’m sure it will do as much good as telling my horses not to roll in the mud. But I tried.

     In the meantime, I can supply more hay to eat while she is in the paddock, and I’ll be pulling those pretty flowers up by the roots as soon as possible. So let my recent experience be a warning to any of you who might have buttercups in your pasture, especially if the grass supply is gone. Everything says that horses won’t eat buttercups as long as something else is available, because of the bitter taste. But when they are eaten, they give off an oil that is toxic, possibly causing irritation to the mouth and digestive tract. When dried, they apparently are no longer dangerous. They can be killed by spraying, but you couldn’t let the horses in there for about two weeks afterward.

     I am thankful that all seems to be going well at the moment. Lady and I have shared a rough time together and bonded even more. A few days ago, when my knee gave out and I led her out for grass, she walked very slowly as I leaned on her neck with each step. It warmed my heart, because she usually walks really fast. And each time I gave her a syringe of sulfa pills, instead of avoiding me with upraised head, she actually curved her head toward me. I know she wasn’t eager to get that stuff, but I think she realized I was trying to make her well. We need to reduce our herd of four, but how can I sell Lady when she shows such dependence and devotion? 

     I read recently there is nothing that God won’t do for the person who tries to please Him above all else. Psalm 147:11 says, “The Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love.” Is Lady my example of this truth? Even with her Alpha ways, this mare is so attentive, so focused on pleasing me. It is humbling. For a long time, I’ve been trying to choose whether to sell Lady or Rocky. It is a difficult decision.

     God has ways of working in our lives, directing us, teaching us and strengthening us to do what needs to be done. I’m very thankful that my knee didn’t give out until after Lady got over her colic. I can’t prove that she actually had buttercup poisoning, but I believe it is a logical conclusion. I kept her out of the paddock a few days, and then watched her when I did put her out. I am giving her a digestive supplement to restore a balance of good bacteria and an iron supplement to resolve her anemia. She is already acting like her old self again.

     Lady and I will soon be venturing down the road by the barn, to deal with the scary lawn mowers and tractors, big trucks and four wheelers that might come along. If I keep her, I will have to work on this issue, because Rocky will probably be sold even though he is our best horse. Traveller is traffic safe and currently doing very well, but he is about 23 years old now and I know he won’t always be around.  Maybe when that time comes, Lady will be as dependable as he has been. I know she gives me her all, and this is one more challenge for us to meet together. I keep remembering how she walked slow one day when I needed her support.

(Originally published in the August 2008 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)

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