Excessive sulfate and poor water quality as a cause of sudden deaths and an outbreak of diarrhea in horses.

Abstract: Sudden deaths and an outbreak of diarrhea in horses occurred in southern Saskatchewan in 2006. Five horses died while survivors presented with diarrhea and, in 1 case, acute neurologic signs attributed to hyponatremia. Diagnostic testing of affected horses and environmental testing suggested poor water quality, specifically high salinity and high sulfate concentration as the cause. Des morts soudaines et une éclosion de diarrhée se sont produites chez des chevaux du Sud de la Saskatchewan en 2006. Cinq chevaux sont morts tandis que les survivants ont présenté de la diarrhée et, dans 1 cas, des signes neurologiques aigus attribués à l’hyponatrémie. Les tests diagnostiques des chevaux touchés et les tests environnementaux ont suggéré qu’une mauvaise qualité de l’eau était la cause, particulièrement une salinité élevée et une concentration élevée de sulfate. (Traduit par Isabelle Vallières)
Publication Date: 2010-06-02 PubMed ID: 20514251PubMed Central: PMC2822371
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  • Journal Article
  • Research Support
  • Non-U.S. Gov't


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This study investigates the sudden deaths and outbreak of diarrhea in horses in southern Saskatchewan in 2006, attributing the cause to poor water quality, notably high salinity and high sulfate concentration. The research indicates that remedial actions regarding water quality could potentially minimize such occurrences in the future.

Occurrence of the Conditions

The research observed that several horses experienced sudden death and a diarrhea outbreak in Southern Saskatchewan in 2006. Symptoms presented in surviving horses included diarrhea, and in one instance, acute neurologic signs. These adverse manifestations were linked to excessive sulfate intake and poor water quality, which led to hyponatremia—a condition characterized by low sodium levels in the blood.

Diagnostic & Environmental Testing

  • The researchers conducted diagnostic tests on affected horses to ascertain the underlying cause of their conditions. These tests provided crucial insights into the nature and severity of the health impacts and provided definitive evidence of the high salinity and sulfate concentration in the horses’ systems.
  • Moreover, environmental testing was also carried out in the region where the affected horses were located. The water in this area was tested to gauge its quality, particularly focusing on its salinity and sulfate content.
  • The results from both series of tests suggested that the poor water quality—characterized by elevated salinity and sulfate concentration—was the root cause of the sudden deaths and the diarrhea outbreak.

Implications and Recommendations

From these findings, the research highlights the critical role that water quality plays in the overall health and well-being of horses, and arguably in other animal species too. Highly saline water, with a significant sulfate content, can lead to severe health conditions including, but not limited to, diarrhea and in extreme cases, death.

It underscores the need for:

  • Meticulous monitoring of water quality in areas where horses and other animal species are present.
  • Corrective actions to improve the water quality in regions identified as high-risk to prevent such health catastrophes in the future. This can involve treating current water sources or providing alternate drinking sources with moderated salt and sulfate levels.
  • Increased awareness among animal caretakers about the dire implications of poor water quality, impelling them to conduct regular water testing to ensure its suitability for livestock consumption.

Cite This Article

Burgess BA, Lohmann KL, Blakley BR. (2010). Excessive sulfate and poor water quality as a cause of sudden deaths and an outbreak of diarrhea in horses. Can Vet J, 51(3), 277-282.


ISSN: 0008-5286
NlmUniqueID: 0004653
Country: Canada
Language: English
Volume: 51
Issue: 3
Pages: 277-282

Researcher Affiliations

Burgess, Brandy A
  • Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM), University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan S7N 5B4.
Lohmann, Katharina L
    Blakley, Barry R

      MeSH Terms

      • Animals
      • Death, Sudden / epidemiology
      • Death, Sudden / etiology
      • Death, Sudden / veterinary
      • Diarrhea / chemically induced
      • Diarrhea / epidemiology
      • Diarrhea / veterinary
      • Disease Outbreaks / veterinary
      • Female
      • Horse Diseases / chemically induced
      • Horse Diseases / epidemiology
      • Horses
      • Male
      • Saskatchewan / epidemiology
      • Sulfates / analysis
      • Sulfates / toxicity
      • Water / chemistry
      • Water / standards


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      This article has been cited 2 times.
      1. Solgi M, G Tabil L, D Wilson L. Modified Biopolymer Adsorbents for Column Treatment of Sulfate Species in Saline Aquifers.. Materials (Basel) 2020 May 23;13(10).
        doi: 10.3390/ma13102408pubmed: 32456240google scholar: lookup
      2. Chaves LC, Navoni JA, de Morais Ferreira D, Batistuzzo de Medeiros S, Ferreira da Costa T, Petta RA, Souza do Amaral V. Water mutagenic potential assessment on a semiarid aquatic ecosystem under influence of heavy metals and natural radioactivity using micronuclei test.. Environ Sci Pollut Res Int 2016 Apr;23(8):7572-81.
        doi: 10.1007/s11356-015-5993-2pubmed: 26732704google scholar: lookup