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).

    Hunter, in 1865, reported on the great capacity of a charcoal derived from coconut shell for absorbing gases' David O'Conney, Ph.D. (1995) activated charcoal; antidote, remedy and health aid

    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.

    Hunter, in 1865, reported on the great capacity of a charcoal derived from coconut shell for absorbing gases' David O'Conney, Ph.D. (1995) activated charcoal; antidote, remedy and health aid

    Corby and Decker (1974) have pointed out , however, that since charcoal is harmless, the only limiting factor is the quantity the individual is will to accept; accordingly, the optimum dose is the maximum that can be given practically. Nevertheless, it would seem that 100g charcoal would be sufficient for nearly all cases' Corby, D.G and Decker, W.J. (1974). Management of acute poising with activated charcoal. Pediatrics 54:324

    The consensus now emerging among clinical physicians is that the best way of handling overdose consists of the administration of large amounts (100g or more) of powdered charcoal as a slurry in water.' david o'conney, Ph.D. (1995) activated charcoal; antidote, remedy and health aid.

    If the average child (aged 7) weights 50 pounds (www.livestrong.com) and the average horse is 1102 pounds (www.thehorse.com) that would be the equivalent of the horse being given 2-3kg of charcoal at a time not the maximum of 16 grams twice dairy that is shown on the Comfort Gut Label.

    As Hayden and Comstock (1975) have discussed clearly, powdered charcoal has been studied for toxicity due to ingestion, skin contact and inhalation. All studies show it to be harmless. Nau, Neal and Stembridge (1958a) have found that feeding powdered charcoal mixed with dog chow to animals produced no adverse effects. Nau, Neal and Stembridge (1958b) has also reported that applications of powdered charcoal to healthy skins of monkeys, mice, and rabbits produced no change from normal. Nau et al. (1962) similarly found that mice and monkeys exposed to inhalation to powdered charcoal for periods of up to 1900hours showed no change in lung tissue'

    Hayden, j.w and comstock, e.g (1975). Use of activated carbon on acute poisoning. clin. toxicol. 8:515.

    Nau, c.;Neal.j; and Stembridge, v. (1958a) a study of the physiological effects of carbon black. I.Ingestion. Arch. Ind. Health 17:21

    Nau, c.a;Neal.j; and Stembridge, v. (1958b) a study of the physiological effects of carbon black. II.Skin contact. Arch. Ind. Health 18:511

    Nau, c.a;Neal.j; and Stembridge, v. and Cooley, r.n (1962) physiological effects of carbon black. IV.Environ. Health 4:415

    Yatzidis and Oreopoulos (1976) relate that kidney disease patients were given 20-50g activated charcoal per day for up to 4months without any side effects. In fact, it was noted that "patients had a marked subjective improvement in gastrointestinal symptoms and signs, such as anorexia (appetite loss), nausea and vomiting" -Yatzidis, H and Oreopoulos, D. (1976). Early clinical trials with sorbents. Kidney Int. 10 (suppl.7):S-215

    It is therefore safe to say that properly manufactured medical charcoals seem to pose no hazard' David O'Conney, Ph.D. (1995) activated charcoal; antidote, remedy and health aid.

    Frolkis et all (1984) recently reported some extremely interesting results on the effect of oral charcoal on prolonging the life span of "old" (28-month old)rats. Since toxic metabolites are believed to play a role in ageing, the purification of digestive juices in the intestinal track using activated charcoal ("enterosorption") could potentially remove such toxic substances from a person's system.

    Enterosorption, using different amounts of activated charcoal in the rats' diet, increasing the rats' mean life spans at 50%, 80% and 100% mortality by 47%, 41% and 44% respectively, as compared to controls. It increased their maximal life spans by 34%, as compared to controls. The charcoal also decreased the rate of onset age-related structural and metabolic changes' -Frolkis, v.v. et all (1984) Enterosorption in prolonging old animal life span. Exp. Gerontol. 19:217

    Vitamins range in size from about 35 Kb up to about 85 Kb (343nm) and the pour on coconut shell charcoal is 1-25nm

    Comfort gut also has a ph 6-11 (ie water/neutral)