Dropping Like Flies-Prussic Acid in Cattle

By Rosslyn Biggs, DVM & Barry Whitworth, DVM

As the year progresses many producers look to move cattle to alternative pasture. Unfortunately, certain weather conditions, including drought or freezing, can set up some plants in the sorghum family, including Johnson grass, to become toxic. Even after limited grazing, deaths may be seen due to the ingestion of prussic acid, also known as hydrocyanic acid or cyanide. A classic call to the veterinarian is, “My cattle are dropping like flies.”

Prussic acid toxin is created when the harmless hydrocyanic glycosides in plants are stressed and breakdown. Once the hydrocyanic glycosides in the plants are damaged through actions like cattle chewing or a swather and crimper, they quickly convert to prussic acid.  Following ingestion, the prussic acid is released in the rumen and rapidly absorbed into the blood stream. 

Once in the circulatory system, the toxin prevents cells from taking up oxygen. The blood therefore becomes saturated with oxygen leading to blood that appears bright cherry red. The clinical signs most often seen include excitement, muscle tremors, increased respiration rate, excess salivation, staggering, convulsions, and collapse. Asphyxiation at the cellular level is the cause of death due to deprivation of oxygen. 

When producers encounter animals displaying clinical signs of prussic acid toxicity, they should immediately remove all the animals that appear normal to a new pasture and contact their veterinarian.  The veterinarian will treat the sick animals with two drugs (sodium nitrite and sodium thiosulfate) that can reverse the toxicity. Treatment must be initiated quickly but can prove difficult due to the rapid progression of the toxin.

The drugs used to treat prussic acid toxicity can be difficult to obtain. It is advisable to contact your veterinarian before grazing potential toxic plants to make sure that your veterinarian will have availability to respond and the necessary drugs on hand to treat the cattle if a problem arises.

Read more in the August 2022 issue of Oklahoma Farm & Ranch.