There are arguably few things more devastating than watching an animal die suddenly, unexpectedly, and of an unknown cause. One Pennsylvania horse owner had this experience last year and decided she needed to find out what happened. So she reached out to some industry professionals for help.

Kathryn Watts, consultant at and founder of Safergrass.org, first learned of the case when the owner contacted her, asking whether a shipment of straw bedding from a reliable longtime supplier could have been responsible causing her mare’s death.

"The horse developed some problems walking, then was down and unable to rise, and eventually died, gasping for breath," Watts said of the mare’s rapid decline. "When she died, the horse was very swollen through the throatlatch area. And then (the owners) discovered that the horse’s lips were completely filled with ulcers, and there were awns (common in foxtail and other related plants) stuck in her lips.”

The veterinarian, who was on the way to the farm at the time the horse died, wasn’t able to offer the owner very much information about what caused this horse’s death, Watts said. "The owner chose at the time not to have a necropsy, but the more she thought about it, the more she wanted to find out what caused this horse’s death,” she added. “She had a great deal of the straw she’d purchased left, and she started to be concerned for her other horses."

Watts said the owner sent her photos of the straw and shipped samples to Cornell University to have it identified.

"The straw was identified as cereal rye; in other