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My beloved mare: a red maple fatality

From: Carole

Dear Jessica, I am just writing in order to gain some more information to try and ease my agony.

On this past Saturday I noticed my chestnut arab mare laying down a lot and acting "listless". I went to the pasture and brought her out and called my vet. The horse was having extreme diarrhea also.

The vet did a gut sound check which was good and the horse's vitals. Her temp was 101 and her gums were still pink. She gave us an antibiotic and gastracote for her stomach. The antibiotic was to be administered twice a day for 3 days in 16ML doses; which we did. I also gave her yogurt... about 2-3 ounces once each day.

Monday she laid down alot and by evening she appeared quite weak. I called the vet and she came. The horse's vitals were weak.....low temp and slow heartbeat with blue gums. The only thing she ate in those 3 days that I saw was approx. a small flake of hay on Sunday night. The vet also discovered there were no gutsounds and did a rectal and determined that there was no impaction or obstruction. She drew blood and after doing the appropriate waiting and monitoring told me that my mare's organs were shutting down and she felt it was possible that the horse had consumed some red maple leaf because that is the only toxic plant we could even think of in my yard. The tree is a small one and it is up on the side of my house and the only explanation is that the wind possibly blew some leaves about 200 ft. into the pasture where they graze and are fed hay. My horses have access to water and salt blocks at all times also....and our pasture is very large....about 8 acres.

Needless to say, she informed me that the mare wasn't going to survive over another 24 hours. I decided to have her euthanized because I didn't want her suffering. She was weak and having a hard time keeping herself stable also. I also didn't mention that when I bought this mare 8 yrs. ago, she was down to bones and has had "loose" stools throughout her life here. I had her on Vintage Senior and a good hay plus the huge pasture, etc. She gained weight here and was "fit" but never FAT.

I guess what I want in order to feel any ounce of comfort is what it all "sounds" like to you. This was quite a blow. She was a 17 yr old flashy arab...daughter of Sey Aladinn with the chrome and truly a good girl and I miss her terribly. But am now questioning my decision mostly because of the void I am feeling.

Do you have any ideas or thoughts on this?

My vet assured me that my long-awaited decision to have her euthanized was kind but I am feeling soooo upset.

Any comments?

Thank you for being there.

Regards, Carole


Carole, I'm so very sorry that you lost your beloved mare.

It sounds to me as if you and your vet did everything right, according to what you knew or suspected at the time. On Saturday when you noticed that your mare wasn't doing well, you rang your vet. When she came out, she checked the mare's vitals and found nothing too scary, and nothing that would have screamed "red maple poisoning". Since at that point your mare still had a normal temperature and pink gums, there was not even a hint of what could be causing it, and without an obvious hint such as a big branch of red maple lying across the horses' feed tubs, she had no reason to suspect red maple. Your vet's second exam on Monday night also sounds thorough and conscientious, and of course you did the right thing in calling her out again. Her conclusions were probably correct, because at that point the signs DID indicate poisoning, and the red maple was the most likely source of the toxins.

So you did everything you could and should have done, and so did your vet, but your mare was just too damaged to survive. I know how hard it is for a loving owner to make that painful decision and say "Please, Doc, put her down, I just don't want her to suffer any more" - I'm very sorry that you had to make that decision, but you did the right thing for your mare, even though it was horribly hard for you. That was a horseman's decision, and your vet is absolutely correct: IT WAS KIND.

Of COURSE you're feeling upset! You just lost a horse you loved - you couldn't possibly NOT be upset. I wouldn't dream of trying to talk you out of being upset. You've just lost a friend and you need to mourn her - that's normal.

What I CAN do is explain a little more about red maples and their effects, in the hope that you'll understand that what happened wasn't your fault.

Red maples are so beautiful in fall, it's difficult to believe that they're so incredibly toxic to horses, and that they're even more dangerous than usual at this time when the leaves are drying, and storms and wind can break branches and send leaves hundreds of feet away from their tree. If those leaves end up in a horse pasture, that's often a death sentence for the horses in that pasture. I know it must seem odd that well-fed horses in a good grass pasture would bother with dried or wilted leaves, but horses are eternally curious, and alas, they WILL eat leaves for no apparent reason, even when surrounded by good grass and hay.

It doesn't take a huge quantity of leaves to kill a horse. Red maple leaves aren't quite as fast-acting or dramatic as yew (a big mouthful of yew will drop a horse very, very quickly), but they're extremely toxic, and they destroy red blood cells. A very healthy young horse that eats only a handful of leaves MAY survive with the help of immediate IV fluids, oxygenation, and/or whole blood transfusions, but ONLY if the problem is identified immediately and treatment begins immediately. In other words, if a big branch of red maple lands in your pasture right next to the gate, and you recognize the branch and call your vet whilst you're running as fast as you can to reach the pasture before your healthy young horse has a chance to each more than a few mouthfuls of leaves, it's POSSIBLE that the horse MIGHT be saved... but it's unlikely. There's no actual therapeutic treatment for red maple poisoning. Even if you lived two minutes from a huge veterinary hospital, the vets there wouldn't have many more options than your own vet had. All any vet can do is offer supportive treatment, which basically amounts to trying to keep the horse hydrated and oxygenated so that it can have a chance to survive. Most horses that eat even a pound or a pound and a half of red maple leaves either die or are euthanized - with or without treatment, because there's no antidote and no cure. The red blood cells lose their ability to function and then die off; meanwhile, the horse's vital organs (liver, kidneys, etc.) begin to disintegrate.

Even in cases where horses have ingested less than a pound of leaves, and have been taken to the vet hospital and given IV fluids and even whole blood transfusions, there's no guarantee of survival. There's not even a guarantee of improvement. And even in those rare cases where a very strong, healthy young horse manages to fight its way back until it is once more able to produce functioning red blood cells, there can be extremely unpleasant complications... such as laminitis, and sometimes not just laminitis but founder.

Your mare was 17 - that's not terribly ancient, but she was definitely not a young horse. Before you bought her, she had obviously been neglected (at the least). You clearly did a good job of bringing her back to much better health and to a good working weight, but you couldn't make up for what had already happened to her, and you couldn't turn her into a three-year-old. NOBODY COULD. The fact that she never did have normal manure makes me think that she suffered internal damage that couldn't be put right even after eight years of loving care from a good owner. I think that she just had too many things working against her to let her survive something as serious as red maple poisoning. Something like 75% of horses that eat red maple leaves are either found dead or dying, or have to be euthanized within a few days. That's one of the most incomprehensible things about it - a horse that was FINE on Friday can be dead or dying on Sunday or Monday. It all happens so very, very fast.

I don't know whether any of this will make you feel better, but once again, it seems to me that you and your vet did everything right, but the odds were very much against you. You were your mare's true friend all the way to the end, and made that difficult final decision thinking about HER and not about yourself. During those eight years, your mare was lucky to have you for an owner. I realize that there aren't any words that can truly comfort you, but for what it's worth, you're in my thoughts.

Jessica

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