Can horses eat walnuts?

“Can horses eat walnuts?” “Walnut equine laminitis” “My horse ate a walnut.” Those were all searches I frantically typed into Google on my iPhone last night.

It was really hot — 100 degrees, which is crazy for Oregon — and after I rode Cairo, I hosed her, scraped her and grazed her. The greenest grass on the farm right now is under a large black walnut tree, so Cairo and I sauntered over there.

Have I mentioned that Cairo has a voracious appetite? She eats like a starved wolverine. She vacuums her grass hay, wolfs her alfalfa and can smell soaking beet pulp from a mile away. I’ve had her snake her head around a stall door, snatch a bowl of soaking beet pulp pellets, tip it into her mouth and snarf it down before I could take a single step. Then she looks at me with her bright, interested eyes and a “What else you got?” expression.

Luckily she also has a high metabolism and seems to be able to consume vast amounts of food and stay trim.

But walnuts?

As we grazed, watching the sunset, I saw out of the corner of my eye that Cairo was making her “I see something I want” face that she usually makes in the vicinity of the apple tree right before she snatches fruit right off the branches. As I heard the crunch, I put two and two together and realized she had scarfed up a walnut.

I dove for her mouth, and she took a step back, looking at me all the while, and rolled it around in her mouth and crunched again. At this point I wasn’t too worried — I figured the walnut husk would taste bitter and she’d spit it out. She has a get-it-in-your-mouth-first-and-then-decide attitude towards edibles. Nope, she tasted that nut and deemed it good and like Mr. Owl and the Tootsie Pop, she crunched again and it was gone.

As balls to the wall as she is, I still give Cairo credit for generally being sensible. She’s cocky, but I don’t think she has a death wish. So my first thought, after “OMFG aren’t walnuts toxic to horses?” was that I didn’t think she would eat something that would hurt her. Tansy grows in a lot of Northwest pastures, and it’s toxic to horses but unless they are starving, they simply don’t eat it, so I have a good reason for believing Cairo might show some sense. Also, I have seen her spit out rocks, cherry pits and other less than tasty objects after snatching them up.

Still, most horse people know that if you bed an equine on black walnut shavings, they will often develop laminitis within eight hours, so it stands to reason snarfing walnuts isn’t a great idea.

So I plopped Cairo back in her stall with a big slurpy bowl of beet pulp (operating on “dilution is the solution” when it comes to possible toxins) and began to Google.

I soon learned that: Black walnuts and horses come up a lot in discussion. That there have been dreadful experiments involving pouring black walnut extract into horse bellies to induce laminitis. A lot of people have black walnuts in horse pastures with no ill-effect.

Most importantly I found the the Oregon Veterinary Association says that while the heartwood of black walnuts is linked to laminitis, eating walnuts is not.

I contemplated giving her Banamine preventatively but with the weather so hot, I didn’t feel good giving her something that might slow her gut down unless I needed to. It’s hard to walk that fine line between practical and paranoia when it comes to fragile 1,000 lb beasts who seem to pour a lot of energy into killing and maiming themselves.

I finally left the barn and went home … and Googled more until I realized I was just going to keep coming up with the same information over and over again, and while many people talked about black walnut shavings-induced laminitis, and many talked about black walnuts being toxic, no one seemed to have any experience with a horse getting sick from eating walnuts or even leaves. MInd you, it did dawn on me to wonder if maybe most horses, who don’t have Cairo’s experimental tastes, just don’t eat black walnuts but I did finally get to sleep and stop fretting. Drinking gin helped.

I popped awake this morning and decided I would get a lot more done at work today if I wasn’t fretting, so I drove to the barn before heading to the office. When I walked in, there was Cairo, bright eyed and, since it wasn’t feeding or turnout time yet, hungry.

She’d eaten all her hay, reached under the stall partition and stolen Flash’s feed tub and cleaned that out, and possibly stolen some of his hay, too. No heat or swelling in her legs, lots of poop in her stall. Phew. I tossed her a couple bites of hay to tide her over until turnout time and headed to work — where I freely admit, I Googled horses and walnuts a couple more times, just to be sure.

I think as long as little miss thing doesn’t make a habit of walnut snacking, she’s going to be OK, but of course I will go check her tonight to make sure!

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