I live in Ocala, Florida, where most people believe botulism doesn’t exist. But, on Christmas Eve, I lost my 7-year-old Thoroughbred mare and her unborn colt to this horrific disease. I’m sharing our story in hopes that if people see that it happened to us, it can happen to anyone, and that they’ll take steps to reduce their horses’ risk of contracting botulism.
I had owned “Penny” (registered with The Jockey Club as Buck the Attitude) since she was a yearling, so I knew her well. She never raced but was very well bred. I started her under saddle when she was almost 3 and showed her as a hunter.
In 2015 I decided to investigate breeding her in hopes of racing the baby. The next year I bred her to Chitu, who ran in the 2014 Kentucky Derby, the year California Chrome won and stood nearby at Bridlewood Farm, in Ocala. He’s a beauty, so I knew if the baby wasn’t fast, he would at least be gorgeous and I could turn him into a show horse. We planned to keep the baby forever.
An Abrupt Change of Plans
On the morning of Dec. 22, I went out to feed as I usually do and found Penny lying in the pasture, which wasn’t normal. My first thought was colic but, with her upcoming due date on Feb. 15, I also thought she might not be feeling good because of the pregnancy. When I approached her, I saw she was also shaking her head in a side-to-side motion. I knew that wasn’t good.
I immediately called my vet and got Penny to her feet. She’d stand for a few minutes, then her back end would start shaking, and she’d crash to the ground. When the vet arrived he first suspected Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) or West Nile virus (both diseases with neurologic clinical signs), but she’d been vaccinated at the end of September. I showed him my records, and at this point he was stumped.
The Diagnosis: Botulism
He took video of her and immediately sent it to the vets at Peterson & Smith Equine Hospital, also in Ocala, and I remember they called to tell him it was botulism. We got her on a trailer and to the clinic within an hour. Upon arrival, the vets at Peterson & Smith started Penny on serum, and really that’s all we could do. They hooked her up to intravenous fluids and made her as comfortable as possible. She would stand some and then fall . Anytime she heard my voice she was jump up and try to come to me, but then fall again. She had little control of her body. The next day she stood once, fell, and never got up again.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, just 48 hours after I found her lying in the pasture, she was laid flat out with yellow stuff coming out of her nose and breathing rapidly. Penny lost all control of her entire body, yet her mind was perfect. The vet, Dr. Faith Hughes (DVM, Dipl. ACVS), told me we needed to put her down, but I begged to give her us little more time, plus Penny was pregnant. They agreed.
The last time I saw her she was laying in the stall, paralyzed by this point, and I said, “Penny (she looked me in the eyes), if you want to fight, fight. But if you need to let go I understand, and I love you.”
She died a few minutes later. The vets immediately delivered a perfect chestnut colt with three knee-high stockings, but he too was already gone.
Vaccination: The Best Protection Against Botulism
We vaccinated all our other horses immediately after losing Penny. I learned it’s a very safe vaccine and not expensive. We have no idea where the botulism came from on our property. We fed Penny nothing but the best of everything. She was on gorgeous Midwestern alfalfa hay, which we dug through and never found a trace of anything that could have hurt her. She never ate from a large round bale, and our pastures are near-perfect. We searched it for dead animal that might have been the botulism source, but we found nothing.
She was up-to-date on all her vaccines but one: botulism. I had never really heard of this disease before this, but I have been on a mission to beg people to vaccinate ever since. A $15 vaccine would have saved my girl, her baby, and my broken heart. Instead Christmas is probably ruined forever for me now, I had more than $5,000 in vet bills, and the love of my life is gone.
The vets at the clinic said they had only seen one other botulism case in 20 years. However, my vet recently told me another horse in Ocala died a month or two ago from botulism. He said the bacterium that causes botulism is ubiquitous, so it could have come from anywhere: the feed, hay, pasture, water, even the air … anywhere.
We’ll never know the exact source, but botulism a horrible way for a horse to die.
Editor’s note: Find out why horses are at risk and how to protect them from botulism in our Ask TheHorse Live Q&A with Dr. Daniela Luethy. Listen now.