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15 September 2014

GRASS SICKNESS – my part in its downfall – by Dawn Saunders

Like Tony and Karen (Comerford), I too lost a pony to grass sickness.  Within 24 hours of being diagnosed he was gone.  So five years down the line I was devastated to come home from holiday and find our little black Shetland, Magic, obviously in the throws of it too.  Unlike my first pony and Tony’s horse Nik, Magic proved to be a “chronic” case rather than “acute”.

The awful realisation

Erin and Magic had been to a “holiday home” near Huntly where they had been very well looked after, and it was only this person’s close monitoring of them both that alerted us to the fact that Magic had been “off” for a few days.  Nothing specific, just “not right”.  When I went to collect them, I took one look at her and my heart sank, she looked so dejected and ill.  I took the horses home as quickly as possible and rang my vet.  Magic had nasal discharge, a pulse of 90, an elevated temperature and no gut sounds.  Whilst we waited for the vet, Magic shuffled over to her water bucket and tried to drink, it was heart breaking to see her kicking at the water in frustration - a very obvious symptom.

When the vet arrived, he confirmed my fears and suggested giving Magic another 24hrs but to prepare myself for her euthanasia.  Magic was given a huge pain killer and the vet was to come back in the morning and see how she was, or wait for a ‘phone call from me if she deteriorated

Web search

Feeling extremely upset and frustrated, I switched on the computer and went searching out anything I could find on Grass Sickness.  I suppose I was looking for the page with the header “Miracle Cure For Grass Sickness – click here for next day delivery”!  I ended up on the Moredun Foundation web site and they have a census form that they ask you to fill in if you have experience of GS.  When the form asked “did the pony die” I answered “don’t know yet”. The next morning I received a phone call from a lady called Joyce in the Moredun office, who had seen my form and asked if there was anything they could do to help by way of advice.  They also gave me the name of a lady in Nairn who had managed to nurse a pony through and would be  happy to talk to me.  Between the two the advice I was given when nursing a chronic case was:-

Invaluable advice

Ø       Mix some feed balancer (they use TopSpec but anything with probiotics would do) with plenty boiled water and some oil and put through a blender to make what Kevin lovingly referred to as “primordial soup”. Feed this through a dosing syringe two hourly, being extremely careful not to get too carried away with the plunger as this could force the liquid into the lungs and cause secondary infection - pneumonia.  Small amounts are all that is necessary as the horse cannot swallow and you don’t want to cause them distress, just to try and stimulate the swallowing mechanism and appetite in the hope that some mixture will reach the stomach. 

Ø       Make sure the horse/pony has company.  Not just equine but human.  I was leaving Magic alone to start with, under the misapprehension that she needed to be left in peace.  I was advised to groom her for as long as my arms held out and to talk to her.  Being a person who takes good advice to the ‘nth degree, I set up a deckchair in the stable, made up gallons of tea in flasks and read my book to her.  I brushed her until she shone and it was indeed very noticeable that when I was with her she seemed somehow brighter.  If I had to go to the house for supplies or a new book or an update ‘phone call, when I returned, she would be standing at the back of the stable with her head hung low and it was obvious that if left alone, she would simply give up.

Ø       Because Magic was spending a long time lying down with her head in the bedding, and she had a nasal discharge, I changed her bedding from shavings to shredded cardboard.  This proved to be very warm and comfy and totally dust free.  I can speak from experience here because when I was suffering from “deckchair-numb-bum-disorder”, or just in need of a hug and a cry into her mane, I would curl up in it beside her.

Ø       Always have on offer fresh water and tempting food.  I was warned that if Magic did start to eat, what she might fancy one day, she may well turn her nose up the next.  Here the advice differed as one of the ladies, can’t remember which, said not to feed anything sweet as this could cause the horse to develop a sweet tooth and then trying to get it to eat anything else became a nightmare.  The other advisor just said “try anything”!! 

Wonderful support

I was advised by a vet who heard about our dilemma to transfer Magic to a vet hospital down south where they worked.  I was very grateful for their offer of help, but I just knew that if I took Magic away from all she knew, she would die.  I knew her chances were slim anyway but I would rather she died here among friends than in a strange place.  I would have to say at this point that this is a very personal view and may not apply to all horses, it’s something you should discuss with your vet.  I was told that the chances of me bringing my pony through were poor and the hospitals have round-the-clock specially trained nurses to deal with Grass Sickness.  I weighed up the fact that I have a medical background, I was able to devote time to Magic as I wasn’t working and my children are grown and gone, and Kevin was 100% behind me.  So I took the decision to nurse her myself.  It was extremely hard going and I would like, at this point, to say a huge thank you to all my friends who supported me with offers of help, words of encouragement and for just “being there” <sniffle>.  I even had one friend turn up with some ENORMOUS organic carrots from his own garden in an attempt to get her to nibble something on her own!  It really helped to know you were all out there and cheering her on.  For as much as she needed company, so did I.

Devoted nursing

After hours of intense nursing, Magic was very shiny, a little brighter in spirit, but still had no gut movement.  Then after a couple of days, I started to notice that instead of all the “soup” puddling at her feet, she would occasionally attempt to swallow.  I didn’t keep Magic in 24/7 as my paddock is right in front of the house and Erin needed to be out (I had my suspicions that tunnels Tom, Dick and Harry were underway beneath the bedding in her stable), so I figured that as long as the weather was fine, Magic was as well out as in and I could still sit with her and she could see us moving around in the house if I had to leave her.  I suppose the horses were out for maybe 6 hours a day and in the rest.  Erin found it hard but it was her turn to play companion!

Signs of improvement – output!

After about a week and during one of these turn out periods, I noticed that Magic was attempting to nibble one strand of hay.  It took her about ten minutes but it went in and didn’t return in a soggy lump at her feet. This was the first interest she had shown in food.   I did my usual search of the field for any sign of “output” and to my absolute delight I found a tiny little pile.  When I took her back into the stable that afternoon, she seemed to be looking for the syringe instead of turning her head away.  Later in the evening a further little heap appeared in the stable (not that I was completely wrapped up in this whole thing but I have a digital picture of it on my computer – it was my desktop picture for a while!).  I offered Magic one of the hee-uge carrots and she pushed it around the floor a little then stared to nibble up the edges of it like it was a corn on the cob!  From then on I starting the “tempting”!!  I quickly found that if I mixed her feed she wouldn’t touch it, but if I left it separated in the bottom of the dish in its component parts, she would nibble at that day’s particular fancy.  At this point, apparently she had lost her sense of smell so was unable to recognise food.  I started to put a few extra strong mints in the bottom of the bowl and that seemed to help.  Erin particularly enjoyed this phase as she was getting any leftovers and as I felt guilty for ignoring her, she got one or two of the “treats” too!

A setback

By this time, I’d cut the feeding by syringe right down and Magic was starting to pick at hay and feed.  Unfortunately, one morning she took a turn for the worse and the vet confirmed she had a secondary infection of the respiratory tract, so it was back to the soup, but with antibiotics added.  Magic’s breathing became very laboured and her vital signs became elevated again and it looked like even after all that work we were still going to lose her.   It was back to the deckchair and 24 hour surveillance but I think, because she had at least started to eat, she had a little bit of strength to fight off the infection.

Two years down the line and Magic is still with us. I was warned that her coat may suffer due to the illness, and the first winter change of hair produced a very strange coat.  Almost like cotton wool and not waterproof at all.  Magic now has a winter wardrobe that cost slightly more than Erin’s (or mine come to that!)! This year, she managed to produce a waterproof coat, but it’s decidedly “raggedy” looking !  I kept a diary all through Magic’s illness and if I can ever offer any advice to anyone out there, who is unfortunate enough to have a horse suffer the same fate, please feel absolutely free to call me – even if it’s for a rant or a cry.  I know I was very lucky, I still have my pony.

When Tony and I first discussed awarding this trophy, we wanted it to be a reminder that this disease is still out there and that the researchers depend on our contributions.  I think it is even more important to stretch a little deeper into our pockets this year as a lot of us, I’m sure, have already given generously to the Tsunami disaster fund, I read somewhere that other charities will suffer as a result of this…….. let’s make sure Grass Sickness Research isn’t one of them.