Merck Manual

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Professional Version

Paspalum Staggers in Animals


Michelle S. Mostrom

, DVM, MS, PhD, DABVT, DABT, NDSU Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory Toxicology

Reviewed/Revised Nov 2021 | Modified Nov 2022

The incoordination known as paspalum staggers results from eating paspalum grasses (Paspalum spp) infested by Claviceps paspali and C clavispora. The life cycle of this fungus is similar to that of C purpurea ( See also Ergotism in Animals Ergotism in Animals Ergotism in animals generally presents as lameness; necrosis of the tip of the tail, ears, and hoof tissue; and decay of the wattle, comb, beak, and feet in birds. Additional adverse effects... read more Ergotism in Animals ). Toxic infestations are most likely after humid, wet summers. The yellow-gray sclerotia, which mature in the seed heads in autumn, are round, roughened, and 2 to 4 mm in diameter. Ingestion of sclerotia causes nervous signs, most commonly in cattle, although horses and sheep also are susceptible. Guinea pigs can be affected experimentally. The toxicity is not ascribed to ergot alkaloids; the toxic principles are thought to be indole-diterpenes such as paspalinine and paspalitrem A and B, tremorgenic compounds from the sclerotia.

A sufficiently large, single dose causes clinical signs that persist for several days. Animals display continuous trembling of the large muscle groups; movements are jerky and incoordinated. If animals attempt to run, they fall over in awkward positions. Appetite remains good, and animals will eat if feed is provided. Affected animals may be belligerent and dangerous to approach or handle. After prolonged exposure, body condition is lost and complete paralysis can occur. The time until onset of clinical signs depends on the extent of the infestation of seed heads and the grazing habits of the animals. Experimentally, early signs appear in cattle after sclerotia at ~100 g/day has been administered for >2 days. Although the mature ergots are toxic, they are most dangerous just when they are maturing to the hard, black (sclerotic) stage.

Medical treatment, such as fluids and electrolytes, is usually not necessary, unless animals have physical injuries or are compromised from dehydration or lack of eating. Recovery follows relocation of the animals to feed not contaminated with sclerotia of C paspali. Animals are less affected if provided readily available nutritious forages. Care should be taken to prevent accidental access to ponds or rough terrain where accidental trauma or drowning could occur. Topping of the pasture to remove affected seed heads has been effective in control.

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