The risk of acorns this autumn

by Alice Miller BVSC DBR MRCVS.
Friars Moor Livestock Health.

Like other farm vets and farmers, I often find myself thinking about the weather. Many people may think we all just like a good moan about when it is too hot, too cold, too wet or too dry, and perhaps they are right! However, there is also method to this. While we have no control over what it throws at us, we can at least monitor it and make predictions as to how weather changes may affect the land and animals we work with.

There is currently an abundance of acorns on our oak trees, and it is important to be aware of this especially after stormy and windy weather. Acorns are a real risk to ruminant animals. Ruminants include cows, sheep, goats and deer. They are herbivorous animals which have four stomach compartments, the rumen, reticulum, omasum and abomasum. Food such as grass and hay pass through each chamber to get digested.
It seems acorns are very palatable to ruminant animals and once they get a taste for them, they often consume large quantities. Acorns contain tannins, and when digested in the rumen produce acids that are highly toxic. These acids can cause ulcers in the gut which leads to colic and diarrhoea, but they also cause damage to the kidneys. The functioning kidneys remove other toxins from the blood into the urine, but with acorn poisoning this function is impeded, which leads to further toxin build up, blood poisoning and eventual death.

If you keep ruminant animals, it is best to graze them away from oak trees at this time of year, certainly when grass levels are low, as they may be tempted to find these alternative food sources. Look out for signs of colic, diarrhoea, depression, dehydration and sudden weight loss. If acorn poisoning is suspected, remove the animals from the source, offer fresh water and hay, and call your vet immediately.

Unfortunately, there is no specific antidote, but we can offer support treatment, to rehydrate the animal, and support the kidney and gut function. We can administer activated charcoal which helps line the gut and absorb toxins. We can also give intravenous fluids to support the kidney function and effectively attempt to ‘flush’ out the toxins. We can also administer pain relief and gut relaxants to relieve the colic. However, time is of the essence and treatment is only likely to be successful when cases are identified early. Unfortunately, even then it can often be too late, so prevention is better, and I would urge everyone who has animals grazing near oak trees to remain vigilant.

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