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September 26, 2006 > When Mother Nature bites back

When Mother Nature bites back

by Nancy Lyon

Two weeks ago, an Ohlone Humane Society special veterinary assistance brought up a reminder of the dangers of toxic plants. A frantic woman called for help. Her Jack Russell Terrier was having extreme symptoms of gastric distress and pain. She didn't have the financial means to seek veterinary help and OHS was her dog's lifeline. Fortunately, in this case, we were in time to save his life. The culprit turned out to be a particularly inviting group of bulbs recently excavated from her garden - a snack that almost proved fatal.

As informed guardians of our critter companions, most of us are aware that dangers lurk in our homes and yards that can cause serious health problems and even death. Common ornamental plants and vegetables found in local yards are attractive to young and older animals with the munchies.

While certain breeds of dogs are more apt to finding digging a great past time, it's not uncommon for many dogs and other animals who spend unsupervised time in their backyard finding amusement and distraction from boredom by "tasting" the plants at hand - or perhaps paw might be more accurate.

More than 700 plants have been identified as producing physiologically active or toxic substances in sufficient amounts to cause harmful effects in animals. Reactions range from nausea to death. By identifying the most common plant varieties that may cause health problems, you can choose the safest botanical plantings for your individual circumstances. 

Beautiful spring and fall flowering bulbs are a favourite planting but digging is a natural canine habit which can result in deadly "fruit' of backyard adventure. It would be wise to consider this when you decide on the location of your bulbs. Included among the more popular and toxic bulbs are iris, daffodil, day lily, hyacinth and lily of the valley. 

A number of common garden trees can produce systemic toxic effects on animals and/or intense effects on the gastrointestinal tract, and in some cases, fatalities. The seeds from apples, the pits or seeds from apricots, cherries, peaches and the blackened husks from walnuts contain toxic elements that can cause serious harm. Surprisingly, avocados heralded as a human health food are poisonous to rabbits, birds, horses, goats and cows.

Home vegetable gardens also have plants that can adversely effect or even kill. Among the more common are grapes, rhubarb leaves, onions, tomato vines and stems, potato shoots and sprouts that carry many dietary hazards that that don't necessarily apply to humans. For all our similarities, we are different creatures with different body chemistries.

Last spring, gardeners were warned to avoid using fragrant cocoa bean shell mulch if they had companion animals that spent time in the yard. A by-product of chocolate production, cocoa bean shells are frequently used for home landscaping and some dogs find the mulch palatable and ingest varying amounts. The problem occurs because the product contains small amounts of theobromine a chemical found in chocolate and cocoa bean shells and some dogs are known to be sensitive to it in varying degrees.

According to the ASPCA Poison Control Center, vomiting and muscle tremors were the most common signs of theobromine toxicosis that occurred following ingestion. Anecdotal evidence suggested that the severity of clinical signs increased when larger amounts were ingested. Among the symptoms were hyperactivity, diarrhea, and tachycardia (increased and irregular heartbeat) that some times resulted in seizures. While there seems to be some question raised by the product industry as to the accuracy of the warnings, if you have a dog that likes to eat foreign material and spends time alone in the yard, erring on the side of caution would be advisable.

The number of garden plants whose leaves, berries, seeds, fruit, bark, roots, or the entire plants are toxic is pretty surprising. While house and garden plants provide us with lush beauty and enjoyment, they can prove to be a major cause of problems for our companion animals. In fact, we live in a world that surrounds us with poison. Plants, looking to their own best interests, produce an incredible array of toxic concoctions. The toxic effects of plants vary with the animal species, health status, and age of the individual. Time of year, humidity, growth conditions, growth stage and other factors also play a role in the hazards posed by toxic plants

Certain animal species may have a particular vulnerability to a potentially poisonous plant, and you might not notice the symptoms or immediately associate them with the ingestion of the plant. Some deadly fungi can have delayed symptoms before collapse and death.

By becoming aware and knowledgeable of the dangers of certain plants to your particular animal family member, you can prevent a lot of heartache and expense. For a more extensive listing of toxic plants, and their symptoms, check your library or the following Internet websites:;

If you have a poison-related emergency contact your veterinarian immediately. The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center can be reached 24-hours a day at (888) 426-4435. A $55 consultation fee may be applied to your credit card.

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