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Is Activated Charcoal Safe for Colicky, Toxic Horses?By Kentucky Equine Research Staff · July 15, 2016

The well-being of a horse relies in part on a robust gastrointestinal system. Keeping the tract functioning, especially in times of stress, often requires a veterinarian’s skill and an arsenal of medication and time-honored treatments.

Activated charcoal is a porous, carbon-based material that is predominantly used in medicine as a detoxifying agent, to absorb toxins or poisons. “In horses, activated charcoal is most commonly used for endotoxemia, colic, flatulence, and ingested toxins such as those encountered in acorn toxicosis,” explained Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., an equine nutritionist for Kentucky Equine Research (KER).

According to recent research*, “These are all conditions that are seen frequently in the equine veterinary industry, and administration of activated charcoal can be regarded as a relatively simple, but apparently effective, treatment. However, at present, there is limited information and research into the effects of activated charcoal on the microbes of the digestive tract and the consequences, if any, it may have on the microbial community of the digestive tract.”

One of the main concerns associated with the use of activated charcoal is that, in addition to toxic substances, it may absorb beneficial metabolites produced in the gastrointestinal tract. Volatile fatty acids are produced by the equine microbiome—the population of microscopic organisms that inhabit the colon—and serve as the primary energy source for the horse.

To better assess the impact of activated charcoal on the gastrointestinal tract, Edmunds and colleagues collected fecal samples from horses and incubated them with different feeds and activated charcoal.

“The key findings of the study were that activated charcoal had no impact on the rate of gas production, volatile fatty acid levels, ammonia concentrations, or pH values,” summarized Crandell.

Researchers concluded that activated charcoal appears to be most dynamic in the foregut and midgut of horses, reporting that “if any of the activated charcoal does reach the hindgut, then it has no significant impact on the microbial community present, nor on the major metabolites produced, and so should not have a detrimental effect on the principal site of fermentation in the horse.”

*Edmunds, J.L., H.J. Worgan, K. Dougal, et al. 2016. In vitro analysis of the effect of supplementation with activated charcoal on the equine hindgut. Journal of Equine Science. 27(2):49-55.