Black Walnut and Butternut
Poisoning of Horses
Black walnut (Juglans nigra) and butternut (Juglans cineraria)
are native to southwestern Ontario and the eastern USA. The greatest
concern for horse owners is the presence of black walnut or butternut
in the bedding material causing laminitis or founder in horses.
Black walnut is highly prized for use in furniture. Therefore, shavings
and sawdust from furniture factories, and sawmills processing black
walnut, should not be used for horse bedding unless there is a way
to keep the black walnut shavings separate from other shavings.
Pollen of black walnut has been implicated in causing laminitis
in horses. (1) A disease investigation, by the author (Wright),
determined that the consumption of hulls of the fruit of black walnut
was the probable cause of laminitis in a pony.
It is well known that juglone is produced by the members of the
juglans species of trees. It is secreted through the roots to inhibit
germination and growth of various species of plants that try to
establish within the root zone of the tree. Researchers, however,
have been unsuccessful in reproducing laminitis by applying either
black walnut shavings or juglone to horses' feet. However, the ingestion
by horses of aqueous extracts of heartwood consistently reproduces
the laminitis syndrome. (2) This is at odds with the field occurrences
of this toxicity, which suggests that a topical exposure rather
than ingestion is the route of the toxicity.
Fallen walnuts that have become moldy may contain the mycotoxin
'penitrem A', which is a neurotoxin capable of poisoning livestock
and other animals, if ingested. (3)
Laminitis (founder) is a painful disease of the foot. The horse
often walks very tenderly and may stand with the front feet extended
forward, shifting weight to the back feet. It is characterized by
warm hooves, increased pulses to the feet and softening of the coronet.
There may also be edema of the feet and legs. Altered blood flow
in the foot leads to damage to the sensitive epidermal laminae,
microvascular thrombosis, epithelial hyperplasia, and hemorrhage.
Contact with black walnut shavings is one of a number of conditions
that can result in laminitis. Others include: excessive exercise
on hard surfaces, opposite-limb lameness, overfeeding, and a sudden
change of diet to rapidly-growing grass. Laminitis is diagnosed
by clinical signs, sensitivity to hoof testers and identification
coffin bone rotation (third phalanx bone inside the hoof), as seen
on radiology or MRI.
In the case of black-walnut-shavings exposure, clinical signs of
laminitis typically occur within one to two days of exposure to
fresh shavings from both new and old wood, but not aged shavings.
(2) Bedding containing as little as 20% of black walnut shavings
is a problem. The signs are usually reversible within 1-2 days after
removal of the offending bedding, provided that coffin bone rotation
has not occurred.
- Prompt removal of the offending shavings from the stall often
alleviates the problem.
- Your veterinarian may prescribe supportive treatments including:
- Pain relief, in the form of non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory
agents (NSAIDS), such as phenylbutazone or flunixin meglumine
(Banamine®), is important.
- Washing the horse's legs to reduce any further absorption
of toxin. This has been used extensively in the past but may
be unnecessary based on the oral ingestion theory. However,
it will do no harm.
- Cold-hosing or standing in cold water/ice baths to reduce
inflammation and pain. This is used for the acute conditions
1-24 hours post exposure. Treatment consists of cycling between
cooling of the legs and feet for half an hour, followed by
allowing them to warm up for half an hour. This is useful
in reducing the acute inflammation.
- Newer drugs such as adrenergic blockers (prazosin) and
calcium channel blockers (nifedipine) appear promising. (2)
Identifying Black Walnut
Walnut and butternut trees are similar in appearance, are medium
sized (up to 30 metres high), with a trunk diameter of up to 120
centimetres. They can live to 150 years. They have a straight trunk
with a rounded open crown and few large ascending branches. (Figure
1) The roots are deep, wide-spreading and there is usually a taproot.
Figure 1 - Typical Form of a Mature Walnut or Butternut Tree
The leaves are compound leaves, having 7 to 11 opposite pairs of
short-stalked leaflets on a moderately stout central stalk. A single
terminal leaflet, smaller than the leaflet pairs, may or may not
be present at the end of the stalk. Male flowers or catkins emerge
in early spring releasing pollen. (Figure 2)
Figure 2 - Male flowers or catkins release pollen in spring.
Fruit of black walnut are 4 to 6 centimetres in diameter, green
and rounded, hanging in drooping clusters of 1 to 3 nuts. (Figure
3) Fruit of butternut are elongated or pointed at one end. Otherwise,
they are similar in growth habit to walnut. An outer husk one half
to 1 centimetre thick, covers the inner hard nut shell. Inside the
husk, the nut is 3 to 4 centimetres in diameter. Nuts of black walnut
are rounded, while nuts of butternut are elongated and pointed at
Walnut shavings are dark and close-grained.
Figure 3 - Cluster of Black Walnut fruit.
1. Fresh Pine/Spruce Wood Shavings
2. Walnut Shavings
3. Pine Shavings Contaminated with Walnut Shavings.
Black walnut and butternut shavings should never be used for bedding
material for horses. If there is no other choice, then the shavings
should be stockpiled for several months and allowed to age before
Horse owners should;
- Be very careful when purchasing or being given shavings from
- Ensure that the leaves, branches and fruit of walnut and butternut
trees are not placed on the manure pile where horses can reach
- Ensure that the fallen leaves, fruit and branches of standing
trees are not allowed to enter into horse paddocks by fencing
the trees off to a distance that extends beyond the widest branches
of the black walnuts and butternuts.
J.L. Farrar's Trees in Canada (4) and Linda Kershaw's Trees of
Ontario (5) are excellent references for identifying all trees.
1. MacDaniels LH. Perspective on the black walnut toxicity problem
- apparent allergies to man and horse. Cornell Vet. 1983;73(2,Apr):
2. Burrows GE, Tyril RJ. Toxic Plants of North America. Ames, Iowa:
Iowa State Press, 2001: 725-728.
3. Knight AP, Walter RG. A Guide to Plant Poisoning of Animals in
North America. Jackson, Wyoming: Teton New Media, 2001: 301-302.
4. Farrar JL. Trees in Canada. Fitzhenry & Whiteside Limited,
1995. ISBN 1-55041-199-3
5. Kershaw L. Trees of Ontario. Edmonton, Alberta: Lone Pine Publishing,
Further information on plant poisonings can be obtained from the
Canadian Poisonous Plants Information System at the internet address
Munro Derek B. Canadian Poisonous Plants Information System, http://res.agr.ca/brd/poisonpl/