It’s that time of year again when we start getting the poisoning calls here at the office. Our ruminant friends have been happily chomping away at the hay we meticulously made for them last summer but at the first sign of the green up (which I swear has already begun thanks to the very warm weather last week) they are desperate for some green forage in their diet. It seems that even just a taste of washy grass or new tree buds is enough to trigger a drive in them that compels them to seek out any and all green material whether it is good for them or not. So animals that would normally avoid toxic plants may be desperate enough to begin nibbling on poisonous ones. This is also the time of year when some of the plants or leaves that are still around have fully dried and this has concentrated the toxins even more.
There are a few tactics that will help you prevent, treat, and avoid poisonings of your animals.
This technique requires you to survey your property for potentially toxic plants. I have provided a link to common toxic plants of the Northeast. Some plants are only toxic during certain growth stages and other plants express different levels of toxicity during certain times of the year. As a general rule of thumb, toxic plants will be most attractive to our livestock during two different times of the year. The first time is during the green up when all new growth is attractive to our livestock and the other time is when their usual forage is all used up. Generally, any plant, in concentrated enough quantities can make animals sick; the evolutionary predisposition is to never eat too much of the same thing too quickly. This is the rule unless the animals are forced to do so by their caretakers. If fenced into an area where the toxic plants are the only thing left to eat, or forced to eat hay sourced from highly weedy areas, this is where you will find animals getting poisoned. Animals forced to clean up hay are particularly vulnerable because the dried material may concentrate toxins that would otherwise be benign when combined with the copious water in living plants. The best way to avoid these scenarios is to ensure that your animals have appropriate forage for the time of year and are not being forced to clean up vast amounts of a single type of plant.
One way to prevent acute toxicity during vulnerable times of the year is to provide your ruminants with a belly full of stored and vetted forage before you allow them to free range out on the property. This technique ensures that they already have food in their system which will prevent them from gorging on other plants, and if they do ingest something toxic, the plants in their system will help to buffer the effects. Another way to prevent poisoning is to watch the weather. Extreme weather events can leave native and common plants devastated, leaving poisonous plants the only ones left standing. This is true after droughts, fire, hale and wind storms that can dislodge fruits or nuts that may contain poisons, or when animals are forced to graze areas that have not been grazed before. Also worth mentioning is the susceptibility of young and old animals. These creatures do not possess the robust systems of animals in their prime and this combined with compromised liver function can lead to toxicity. Younger stock are particularly vulnerable as they have not yet had the opportunity to experience the natural biological feedback loop in which they learn that some plants are poisonous or been taught by the does which plants are safe to eat.
There are a lot of different treatments for animals that are poisoned and the goal of most of these is to absorb the toxins before the stomach of the animal can, to coat the mucosa of the digestive track to prevent further absorption, and to provide support in the form of electrolytes and amino acids to faltering animals. Dosing a vomiting animal can be difficult and will require a stomach or drenching tube. It is also worth noting that if any vomitus gets into their water or on their supportive feed it needs to be removed and replaced as the vomit has the toxins in it and it will make the food unpalatable. I have included a link to an excellent article by Onion Creek Ranch that outlines the procedure for caring for poisoned goats. I encourage you to prepare for the worst and have some of these products on hand so if you do notice signs of poisoning you are ready to treat instead of waiting for the store to open or the vet to arrive. After all the farmer’s creed is “hope for the best, prepare for the worst.”
A note on the tenuous nature of this reporting. The truth is that we do not fully understand the mechanisms and modalities of poisonings in animals. This is due to a few relevant factors. First and foremost, every animal, every species, and every subtype has varying degrees of vulnerability. Second, the toxic levels vary throughout the year and it is difficult to obtain solid data. Third, from an experimental perspective, it would be inhumane to routinely poison animals to gain insight into this phenomenon. The best we can do is share information and try different remedies, some of which have been passed down through many generations.