2 horses die of botulism at Nova Scotia animal rescue

Two horses at Integrity's Haven Equine Rescue Centre Society in Chester Basin, N.S., have died as a result of botulism. A third horse is sick.

Owner of Integrity's Haven Equine Rescue Centre Society says she wishes she'd vaccinated horses

Koko, an eight-year-old mare, is battling botulism, according to owner Angela Welburn. She was diagnosed with the potentially fatal disease Friday after two other horses at the stable died. (Anjuli Patil/CBC)

Despite not being able to chew her food, Koko is still trying to eat.

The eight-year-old mare at Integrity's Haven Equine Rescue Centre Society in Chester Basin, N.S., bites into the hay but can't hold it in her mouth.

Even so, the centre's owner, Angela Welburn, said Koko's attempts to eat are a promising sign.

"If she's going to fight, I'm going to fight for her," Welburn said.

Botulism diagnosis, deaths

Koko was diagnosed with botulism last week, Welburn said. Two other horses at the centre — Freedom, 29, and Dakota, 12, — died from the sickness on Wednesday and Friday, respectively.

The horses became ill after eating contaminated hay, Welburn said. After learning of the source, she got rid of all the hay on the farm Friday and replaced it.

"[Koko] is still here when they expected her to be gone. All I can do is pray and hope," said Welburn.

"Right now, she can't swallow on her own. It's a muscular and a nerve disease and her tongue will not swallow food so that's where I come in and I'm giving her IV fluids."

The centre takes in old horses, sick horses and healthy horses in need of a home.

Freedom, 29, died from botulism Wednesday. (Anjuli Patil/CBC)
Dakota, 12, died Friday at the Atlantic Veterinary College in P.E.I. from botulism. (Anjuli Patil/CBC)

According to the American Association of Equine Practitioners, equine botulism is a "progressive, paralyzing disease that is 80-100 per cent fatal in affected horses."

The disease is not contagious, but it can be contracted by eating food contaminated by a toxin produced by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum.

Dr. Megan Crouse, an equine veterinarian at South Shore Veterinary Hospital in Wileville, N.S., said she sees cases of equine botulism pop up every year or two.

"It's not uncommon but it's not something we see every day," Crouse said.

The association notes that not too many horse owners are aware of the disease. Symptoms can often look like colic — which is what Welburn initially thought was the problem.

Dry hay link

Welburn said she was surprised to learn the illness was likely caused by contaminated hay. She said she had previously thought botulism was a risk only when feeding silage and haylage, which contain more moisture than hay when harvested.

"For all those people out there who thought, like me, if you feed dry hay you're safe — you're not," Welburn said.

Crouse said botulism is a potential risk in all hay.

"It's definitely something that can happen in any hay," she said. "It's more commonly seen in improperly packaged or preserved haylage or silage, which is what we see it most commonly in but it can also be if an animal carcass or body has been baled up in dry hay as well."

Angela Welburn replaced all the hay at Integrity's Haven Equine Rescue Centre Friday. (Anjuli Patil/CBC)

Welburn watched her horse Freedom die from the disease. She said it was a violent death. She said a veterinarian in P.E.I. who had prior experience with botulism in the U.S. made the diagnosis.

Vaccination and antidote

She will need to keep an eye on all the other horses for symptoms until July 2 to ensure they're not sick. Koko and Dakota were given an antidote.

Fourteen other horses received a charcoal placebo. Welburn said if any of her other horses start to show symptoms, she would try to get the antidote — which she said cost $1,500 per dose.

There is a vaccination for botulism, but Welburn said she was told by a vet two years ago — when Nova Scotia was facing a hay shortage and Welburn was planning to feed her horses haylage — that it would be too expensive to get shots for all her horses.

On Friday, Welburn learned the vaccination is about $45. Each horse would need three rounds of shots in the first three months and then once a year.

"I'm not laying blame because I should have said how much is too much," Welburn said. "When [the vet] said it, I was thinking hundreds of dollars per horse."

​$15K medical expenses

Welburn said she now has about $15,000 in vet bills. Her friend started a fundraising page to help pay the bills.

"Forty-five dollars a shot could have saved my Freedom, my Dakota and now I have Koko dying on me," she said.

Welburn said she's learned a valuable lesson too late.

"I'm mad. They're my kids, they're my children. This could have been so easily prevented," Welburn said.

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About the Author

Anjuli Patil

Reporter

Anjuli Patil is a reporter and occasional video journalist with CBC Nova Scotia's digital team.