Against all odds, roping horse survives botulism, resumes competing

February 27, 2018

John the horse, courtesy of UC Davis

Equine botulism isn’t commonly associated with happily-ever-afters. That said, one roping horse slated to appear in the World Series of Team Roping before he contracted botulism has made a comeback thanks to treatment from the University of California, Davis veterinary hospital.

John is an 11-year-old American Quarter Horse gelding. He was set to compete at the 2016 World Series in Las Vegas, Nevada — at least, until botulism struck. Not feeling optimistic, owner/rider Doug Parker took John to UC Davis. He had just lost another horse to botulism, and another had been sick too.

“After what happened to our other horses just two weeks earlier, we got him to Davis as fast as we could,” he said.

It took intensive treatment with botulism anti-toxin plasma and other supportive care, but after about three weeks, John was able to stand without assistance from a large animal lift. It took a month for him to be sent home to finish recovering. At times, Parker had to use his tractor to help John get off the ground, but soon the horse learned to stand on his own when he heard the roar of the tractor’s engine.

“I think he thought, ‘Well if you’re going to hoist me up with the tractor again, I’ll just stand up on my own,’” Parker said.

John regained much of his weight and strength, but still found roping competitions to be too much to handle. For most of the year, John rested. In June 2017, however, Parker decided to take another stab at competition. They won.

“I never realized what that horse meant to me until I didn’t have him to ride and compete with anymore,” Parker said. “I’ve searched for many high-end horses, but have never seen one as good as John. He’s a one in 100,000 horse.”

What is equine botulism?

Equine botulism comes from the bacteria Clostridium botulinum. It’s a progressive neuromuscular disease that quickly leads to weakness and flaccid paralysis (lack of muscle tone with reduced ability to move). The disease is usually fatal, leading to respiratory failure when not treated soon after the onset of symptoms. Symptoms include slow eating and difficulty swallowing; poor muscle tone; droopy eyelids, tongues and tails; general weakness and muscle tremors; and colic.

What causes equine botulism in adult horses?

Botulism can occur in adult horses who consume preformed botulinum toxin in improperly dried, processed, or stored forages (baled hay, hay cubes, etc.) or feed contaminated with animal carcasses. It can also be contracted if a sealed wound is infected, like injection site abscesses, umbilical infections, deep puncture wounds and castration sites.

In John’s case, Parker was able to narrow down the source of botulism to either the grain or the water consumed by his horses. The horses’ water shared a source with the water in Parker’s own home, where nobody had gotten sick, so grain was the most likely culprit.

Can I vaccinate my horse for botulism?

Yes. Neogen offers the vaccine BotVax B, which inoculates against botulism in three doses, each one month apart. BotVax B is the only U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved Clostridium botulinum type B toxoid licensed for preventing equine botulism in healthy horses.


Category: Animal Safety, Equine, Veterinary, Animal Health