Keep horses away from sycamore, Dutch vets urge

Sycamore trees, but not other Acer species, appear to be a factor in a deadly disease of horses, though the relationship is complex, researchers in the Netherlands have found.

Image: Smabs Sputzer
Image: Smabs Sputzer

Hundreds of horses die each year in Western Europe from a severe muscle disorder known as equine atypical myopathy (AM) after eating Acer leaves, seeds or shoots that contain the toxin hypoglycin A. Even though treatments are now available, the condition still has a 70 per cent mortality rate.

Researchers at Utrecht University faculty of veterinary medicine and RIKILT Wageningen UR invited horse owners, some of whose horses had fallen victim to AM, to submit samples of their Acer trees.

They received 278 samples of the three most common species of Acer in the Netherlands - the sycamore (A. pseudoplatanus), the field maple (A. campestre) and the Norway maple (A. platanoides) - then measured concentrations of hypoglycin A in seeds, leaves and shoots.

They detected the toxin in all parts of sycamore - the most widespread Acer in the Netherlands, as in the UK - but not in the other two.

They note that "in all AM cases, Acer pseudoplatanus was found", but also that "not all horses grazing pastures containing or surrounded by Acer pseudoplatanus develop AM".

They conclude: "The most important recommendation is that owners should prevent horses from eating seeds, sprouts, leaves, or any combination of these from Acer pseudoplatanus."

The research is published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine.

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