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Toxic Killer in Florida

Posted April 29, 2009 12:01 AM by SavvyExacta

Twenty-one polo ponies, each worth $10,000 to $200,000, dropped dead as they were unloaded from horse trailers in Wellington, Florida. They had arrived for a polo match at the U.S. Open on April 19, but in a matter of hours, about half of the Lechuza Polo string was dead. Some were transported to local veterinary hospitals where they died of heart failure. How can this happen?

What is a Polo Pony?

The polo pony is not a specific breed of horse; it is often a mixture of breeds including the thoroughbred, quarter horse, Arabian, and others. The horse needs to be quick, intelligent, and agile. The sport is popular in Europe, Latin America, and the United States.

Deadly Error

Venezuelan businessman Victor Vargas owns the team of nearly 60 ponies. Although many of his horses are from Argentina, they spend most of their time traveling to polo matches.

Veterinarians believe that the horses ingested a toxin that caused pulmonary edema and hemorrhaging of the lungs – leading to their deaths. Some of the horses died quickly – falling as they stepped off the horse trailer. Others held on longer, acting disoriented as they were treated with water, fans, and intravenous lines; they were transported to veterinary hospitals near Wellington.

What Happened?

All of the horses that showed symptoms died. The results of the toxicology reports have yet to come back and could take weeks. Members of the polo team do know that all of the horses that died had been injected with a vitamin supplement – none of the other horses received it.

Biodyl, the French-made supplement that contains vitamin B-12, selenium, potassium, and magnesium, is banned from commercial sale in the U.S. Occasionally, the government will grant permission for a veterinarian to write a prescription to compound the ingredients, which can be dangerous. Selenium, for example, can be toxic to horses at high doses. Or, the particular supplement batch could have been infected with bacteria during manufacturing.

How Toxins Work

State investigators examined the horse trailers, barns, and other horses at the Wellington facility. No problems could be found. If the horses were affected by a toxin, why and how did that happen? Let's use selenium toxicity as an example.

More than 5 mg of selenium per day can cause toxicity in a horse. More than 50 mg in a day constitutes acute selenium poisoning, which can be fatal. Horses get most of the selenium they need from the plants (or grain) they eat. However, supplementation can be necessary in areas with selenium-deficient soil - this is often when overdosing occurs. Horses can also overdose by eating selenium-rich plants like asters and gumweed.

Too much selenium commonly causes hair loss, horizontal cracks in the hooves, and sometimes sloughing off of the hoof wall. Severe symptoms include abnormal gait, difficulty breathing, muscle tremors, and garlic breath. Horses that are not treated can become blind, permanently lame, and suffer from abdominal pain and excessive salivation. Eventually, chronic selenium poisoning can lead to paralysis, respiratory failure, and death.

At this point, it's unknown whether selenium poisoning is specifically what affected the polo ponies. It is likely that a toxin attacked them since their bodies ignored the treatment of veterinarians. We can only hope it was not a malicious attack and that we can learn from whatever problem caused their deaths.

Resources:

https://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/local/palmbeach/sfl-horses-dead-polo-wellington-palm-beach-042309,0,7796201.story

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Polo_players.jpg

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#1

Re: Toxic Killer in Florida

04/29/2009 4:37 PM

How terribly sad!

Hopefully they will be able to pinpoint the cause to something soon. I would hope that if it does turn out to be selenium poisoning, that they enforce some kind of regulation - especially if people are using as a supplement in soil. The effects of selenium poisoning on horses that you shared sound so awful, so I would hope that the people using it are educated enough to do it properly.

I'm curious though - if a supplement of those particular ingredients is banned in the US, why is it sometimes permitted?

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#4
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Re: Toxic Killer in Florida

04/30/2009 7:40 AM

I'm not exactly sure. After doing more research, I see that it's not banned, it was just never approved. So if you apply to use it, you can, but you must have permission from the FDA. The risk you run when having a drug compounded for you is what happened here - improper formulating/dosaging.

Equine medications have been controversial for some time. One, pergolide, is used to treat equine Cushing's. Pergolide was withdrawn from the human pharmaceutical market a few years ago after being used to treat Parkinson's. Everyone was upset about this because it was the only thing effective against the progression of Cushing's, a fatal chronic illness for older horses. For now compounding for equine use is allowed by veterinary prescription.

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#2

Re: Toxic Killer in Florida

04/30/2009 2:03 AM

The source of the killer doesn't seem to be in doubt.

To my mind, the bigger question is why are the ponies given vitamin supplement in the first place ? To alleviate distress caused by the way we use them. In this instance, it sounds like the team vet was circumventing US law by having a drug knocked up locally, and the pharma got it wrong. Biodyl is not a supplement as some would claim, it's a drug to enhance an animals ability to perform for our 'enjoyment'. It's the equivalent of steroid abuse in human athletes, but without consent from the performer.

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#3
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Re: Toxic Killer in Florida

04/30/2009 7:32 AM

As I read it, Biodyl is actually used to aid recovery as opposed to enhance ability to perform. Many human athletes take measures to recover after a stressful athletic event - ice limbs, take electrolytes and other things, etc. Replenishing lost "nutrients" so to speak. In this case, it was given improperly (and at a wrong mixture).

The wikipedia article you linked to says that Biodyl helps prevent azoturia, also known as "tying up" or "Monday morning sickness". It can lead to muscle pain or even kidney failure. While improperly used Biodyl or its equivalent is dangerous, tying up is also painful for a horse - so it's important for a rider/owner to practice good horsemanship to try to prevent it.

Of course a proper exercise and fitness schedule should come first, but before and after a strenuous event, any (safe) measure available should be used.

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#5
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Re: Toxic Killer in Florida

04/30/2009 2:24 PM

You're quite right, I worded that badly. However, I did find this quote ;

"The horses who died were injected with the drug on Sunday morning, four hours before their match was to begin, the person said, and a team vet immediately suspected that the supplement was the culprit"

Whatever the case, the substance is used to enable the animals to perform. For human athletes, electrolyte is just a souped up mix of sugars and salts (I think ?). In other words, stuff you could just as easily take in from a normal diet to replace losses from sweating.

The issue in this case seems to be one of using a banned (presumably for some good reason) substance, that was provided by an incompetent pharmacist. It's a tragic story, but sport always seems to end up pushing the boundaries of acceptable welfare (human and animal). I very much doubt the owner/trainers intended any harm, but perhaps they were caught up in a spiral of how far people go in the name of competition.

Maybe the incident may go some small way toward reviewing regulations. Check out the UK scene and compounding pharmacies here.

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#6
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Re: Toxic Killer in Florida

04/30/2009 2:36 PM

This is true... all of the numerous articles I read said this was a post-work treatment, and the sources were unsure as to why the horses received the supplement prior to the match.

As I mentioned in my other comment to Sharkles, this particular supplement is apparently not banned, but rather was never approved in the U.S. It can be compounded by permission. Obviously they did not use a reliable source!

I have a feeling almost all polo ponies probably receive some type of post-match treatment. They work very hard. A player often uses up to four or six horses per game in the big leagues like Wellington, but in smaller matches, two may be alternated. Considering that the average racehorse is "only" running for two minutes and then walking out, this sounds like hard work!

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Re: Toxic Killer in Florida

04/30/2009 2:46 PM

Polo isn't always so fast...... !

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