Skunk Cabbage Toxic to Horses?

Q. Recently our horses have begun eating skunk cabbage that grows on the property. They have not done so before. They have plenty of grass plus hay and grain, all of which they also eat. One veterinarian says it is harmful to them; another says it's OK but that it has no nutritional value. I am concerned and am wondering if you have any information about this problem. We live in coastal Oregon.


A. To begin with, it's important to know the botanical name of the plant that you call skunk cabbage. Common names can be misleading! I am assuming that it is the Western false hellebore (skunk cabbage), Veratrum californicum. It is a perennial plant with smooth, parallel-veined leaves, growing to six feet in height when in flower. The flowers are greenish-white and are produced in large numbers on a terminal branching flower head. If it is some other plant also called skunk cabbage, perhaps you could get a local plant/ weed specialist to identify it for you.

Veratrum californicum contains numerous toxic alkaloids that can affect the heart. It is also well known for its ability to affect the developing fetus if eaten by the mare in early pregnancy. In sheep, it can cause a lamb to be born with one eye--a cyclops lamb. It is not a plant that you want your horses to eat as it has the potential for poisoning.

I am surprised that your horses are eating it if they have plenty of normal forages to eat; it is not a common cause of poisoning in horses.

About the Author

Anthony Knight, BVSc, MS, Dipl. ACVIM

Anthony P. Knight, BVSc, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, is a professor of large animal medicine in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University. He received his veterinary degree from the University of Nairobi, Kenya, in 1968. After completing a master’s degree at Colorado State University, he joined the faculty in 1974. His current professional interests include livestock heath, foreign animal diseases, emergency management, and plant toxicology. He has written two books on poisonous plants of animals in North America, and maintains a poisonous plants website for use by anyone wanting poisonous plant information.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from Learn More