Oleander Attack: California Show Horses Recovering from Poisonous Leaves

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Everywhere you turn this weekend, people are talking about the strange case of horse poisoning in California that hit the news on Friday. Almost all the horses at a top Saddlebred show horse facility were exposed to a toxic treat: the highly poisonous oleander shrub.

This is an example of one of the types of oleander. A popular novel, White Oleander by Janet Fitch, made oleander a household word in northern climes where it does not grow.


Here's what the International Society for Infectious Diseases at Harvard University says about oleander and the Rockridge Saddlbreds:

"Oleander (Nerium oleander) contains the cardioactive glycosides oleandrin and neriine. All parts of the plant are toxic, but these cardioactive glycosides are considered to be highest in the sap. It is extremely toxic and is reported to be bitter. Hungry animals will consume almost anything. But it is unlikely that apples and carrots disguised the bitterness of the oleander. It is more likely the animals were hungry and simply ignored the bitterness mixed in with the carrots and apples which were a nice treat.

"The plant is so toxic that using a leafless branch as a skewer to cook frankfurters over a fire has been known to poison the consumer of the frankfurter."

I checked on the frankfurter and that seems to be pretty much an urban legend, although it is thought that the fumes created could probably poison someone if the stick touching the meat didn't. I don't think anyone wants to test it out.

There aren't a lot of resources available on oleander poisoning, as I found out this weekend. First of all, many horseowner health reference books are written in Great Britain, where oleander would not be a concern. And within the United States, the shrub grows only in the southern states.

I did find a helpful chapter on oleander toxicosis in a veterinary textbook by Drs. Christopher M. Brown and Joseph J. Bertone. They say that it takes several hours for the symptoms to begin after the horse eats oleander, but that the dreadful list of symptoms includes colic, diarrhea, cardiac arrhythmia, tremors, seizure-like activity, coma, and death.

Perhaps it is fortunate that the poison wasn't slipped to the horses sooner, as their distress might have been further advanced by the time they were found.

This type of case is so confounding because you can't imaging why someone could have a grudge against a group of horses, or why someone would take out revenge against a human by attacking animals. And yet it happens. I think the Internet has added a lot to my stress level by exposing stories of violence against animals on a daily basis.

I know enough about crime situations to know that probably not all the facts could be released and that important details about the horses or their owners might be missing. Yet there's no doubt that it happened and no doubt that the police are trying to find out who would do this.

And why. Please find out why.

I am sure I speak for all the readers of this blog when I wish the Rockridge horses a speedy recovery. I'll hope to report on this story again, with some closure.