Hopefully, all breeders of alpacas know the appropriate feed for their alpacas. We know the ratio of hay to grain. We know we need to provide grass and foraging for our animals, but do we know which plants are safe foraging plants and which plants are not? We humans have been placing so much importance on the need for fresh vegetables and greens in our diet that we can certainly identify with the need to provide fresh greens for our animals. It would be easy to assume that the vegetables and greens that grow in our organic gardens are healthy and safe for our animals, after all, we eat them. This, however, is a dangerous assumption.
What is healthy and safe for humans is not necessarily safe for camelids. The gardens that we routinely plant around our farms and ranches; vegetable and flower, could be deadly for our alpacas should we not be careful. It is, also, dangerous to assume that the most common trees and shrubs that surround our property are equally safe. Just because we see these plants everywhere does not mean that they are innocuous.
The first important rule of thumb concerning vegetables is to remember that just because the fruit of a plant is safe to eat; it does not mean that all parts of the plant are safe. The second is to remember that what is safe for a human is not necessarily safe for alpacas. Many of our favorite foods would kill our animals. Remember, dogs can't have chocolate, either!
Tomatoes, Potatoes, and Eggplants
Tomatoes, potatoes and eggplants are members of the Nightshade family; a family of plants that contains many well known poisonous members. These plants have varying levels of alkaloids that have steroidal properties. In fact, in the 16th century, a well known British herbalist, John Gerard, believed the tomato was poisonous and it wasn't until the 17th century that Europeans added tomatoes to their diet. Though the fruit is now known to be safe, poisoning can occur from the ingestion of the leaves, vines, or unripe fruit. There have been reports of livestock being poisoned by crossing fences to forage through a tomato patch and even by farmers adding the suckers culled from their tomato vines to the livestock feed. Potatoes can be even more deceptive because not only are the plant parts deadly to livestock but the peelings, which we can eat, are also dangerous. Spoiled and rotting potatoes are even more lethal.
Many weeds belong to the nightshade family, as well; jimsonweed, horse nettle, and black nightshade are a few. Never add garden weeds to your animals feed and inspect your pastures for potential hazards.
Nightshade poisoning can be difficult to detect because the symptoms can be mistaken for a variety of ailments. Those symptoms are: lethargy, vomiting, difficult breathing, prostration, and constipation or diarrhea. Since these symptoms do not easily point to alkaloid poisoning it is best to take preventative measures to ensure the safety of your herd.
There are 2 members of the bean family that are particularly dangerous to alpacas; lima beans and peas. These plants are cyanide producers and though the North American cultivars contain cyanide in lower levels, the vines and leaves should still be considered dangerous. Since these plants are commonly grown on fences it is important to make sure these fences are not assessable to livestock. Newborns and young are especially vulnerable.
Cyanide poisoning from lima beans results in first accelerated respiration followed by shortness of breath and breathing difficulty accompanied by a strong bitter odor to the breath. Gasping and staggering are followed by prostration which will eventually lead to coma and death. Poisoning from garden peas results in slightly different symptoms: nervousness, tenseness followed by increased signs of stress such as running and loud noises.
Corn can be a problem when the nitrate levels in the plants are raised due to plant stress; i.e., drought during the growing season stresses plants. These levels can be the highest in the stems and the leaves. Therefore, these should never be fed to livestock. Mold can also be a problem should the corn be improperly stored. Never give moldy feed to your herd.
Nitrate poisoning can cause abortion and poor lactation in females. It also causes discolored urine and hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism, or the under production of the thyroid hormone, can be detected by a blood test but lethargy and loss of appetite are also indicators. Left untreated it can lead to death. It is also possible for the nitrates to be converted to nitrites in camelids. This is an even more toxic poison. Nitrites reduce the ability of red blood cells to provide oxygen to the body, therefore, leading to anemia, cyanosis, breathing difficulties and eventually death from respiratory failure.
Onions contain an alkaloid which has a sulfur compound similar the nitrates found in corn. Poisoning usually occurs when these plants are eaten in large amounts. Ingesting small amounts does not seem to be harmful. Therefore, wild onions in small amounts can remain in the pasture.
Signs of poisoning are the same as those of corn.
Broccoli and Family
Many common vegetables are in the mustard family: broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, turnips, kale, rutabaga, etc. Rape, the plant from which canola oil is derived, is also a member of this family. All parts of these plants have varying potential for poisoning. They contain glucosinolates which are sulfur-containing compounds which interfere with the ability of red blood cells to provide oxygen to the body and with the thyroid s ability to acquire iodine.
Common signs of poisoning are gastric distress which includes partial paralysis of the stomach and intestines, and bloody urine; respiratory distress including opened mouthed breathing and pulmonary emphysema (coughing, panting, etc); jaundice and increased heart rate.
Many of us find much joy in the beauty of our farms and ranches. We are blessed by our beautiful alpacas and nature that surrounds us. Our instinct is to do everything in our power to preserve and accentuate that beauty. One way is to cultivate flowers around our property as natural ornamentation. However, this could be dangerous to your herd if you plant these flowers within reach of their long, curious necks.
Daffodils and Jonquils
Daffodils and jonquils are members of the Amaryllis family. Other members of this family include snowdrops, amaryllis, and the Atamasco lily. The bulbs are the most dangerous part of the plant and are fortunately rarely eaten. There is no definitive data on the toxicity of the other plant parts. It would be wise to adopt a 'better safe than sorry' to avoid tragedy. Do not plant these flowers with in reach of your alpacas.
Symptoms include soft feces, possible bloody mucus, jaundice, unsteadiness and possible death.
Larkspur (delphinium or wolf bane) is a member of the buttercup family, as is its cousin, monkshood. These flowers are particularly dangerous because they are commonly found in nature thus making them a possible resident of your pastures. Larkspur is also particularly lethal with death being often the first sign of poisoning. The poisonous chemicals found in these plants are polycyclicditerpine alkaloids which affect the neuromuscular system. All parts of these plants are toxic but the leaves of larkspur are the most toxic and even more so when they are young. Most reported incidents of livestock poisoning occurred when livestock grazed on young leaves. These plants have no unpleasant taste to discourage grazing.
Often, the first sign of larkspur poisoning is sudden death. Occasionally, an animal will exhibit an irregular heart rate, extreme weakness, labored breathing, salivation, and bloating. Many animals will collapse and remain quiet then suddenly and violently try to stand. This pattern could be repeated until medical aid is given or the alpaca dies.
There are many common flowers in the daisy family but only 3; bitterweed, sneezeweed, and tansy, are dangerous to our herd. These plants are generally unattractive forage for our alpacas but a starving animal might consume them. These plants also do not lose toxicity when dried so can be a danger if included in hay.
Sneezeweed and bitterweed contain an oil which causes gastro intestinal distress, anorexia, diarrhea, acidosis, lethargy, and shortness of breath. Tansy can cause abortion in females.
Foxglove is very common in gardens through out the US. It contains cardiac glycosides which affect heart rate. Fortunately, animals do not readily consume foxglove but since the plant parts do not lose toxicity when dried it is important to dispose of plant parts far from pastures.
Symptoms include gastrointestinal distress, bloody feces, loss of appetite, diarrhea and irregular heart rate.
All parts of irises are slightly toxic to livestock. But irises have an appealing taste and are, therefore, at risk of being consumed in large qualities thus becoming dangerous. It is important keep irises far from the paddocks and pastures.
Symptoms are gastrointestinal distress and shortness of breath.
The most dangerous members of this family are cultivars that are commonly found in natural settings: crocus, lily-of-the-valley, star-of-Bethlehem, dogtooth lily and hyacinth. These all contain cardiac glycosides. The bulbs are the most toxic parts of the plants but the leaves of crocuses and lily-of-the-valley are also toxic.
The symptoms are similar to foxglove; irregular heart rates, gastro intestinal distress, diarrhea and shortness of breath.
All members of the poppy family contain poisonous chemicals called isoquinoline alkaloids which are particularly lethal to cattle. The most toxic part of the plant is the unripe seed pod. Fortunately, these plants are not typically eaten by animals due to poor taste but it is important to be careful with the disposal of garden clippings.
Excitement, gastric distress, and uncoordinated muscle movements are symptoms of poisoning from poppies.
Dangerous Trees and Shrubs
There are many trees and shrubs that could also present a danger to your herd. So it is not only wise to examine the ground cover in your pastures but you should, also, take a close look at the trees and shrubs that are within reach of your alpacas. Such common trees as oak, black walnut, red maple, black locust, and buckeye are all known to contain poisonous chemicals. The trees are valuable for shade so cutting them down only leaves your alpacas more vulnerable to heat stress. Simply trimming lower branches so they are out of reach of even your tallest alpaca will prevent your herd from foraging on the leaves.
Many species are frequently used as ornamentals in landscaping, mostly as hedges, massed and foundation plantings. They include AngloJapanese Yew, Florida Yew, Western Yew, and English Yew. All plant parts of the Yew contain one or more alkaloids called taxine. Leaves and seeds are extremely poisonous and ingestion of as few as 50 needles has resulted in fatalities.
Initial symptoms include dizziness, blurred vision, and dry mouth, followed by salivation, intense abdominal cramping, vomiting, and dilation of the pupils. Severe cases result in coma, respiratory or cardiac failure, and then death.
These trees are can be found in old fields, moist sites in woods, along hillsides and streams throughout the U.S. The wilted leaves and bark are very poisonous. Seeds, fresh and dry leaves, twigs and bark contain potentially deadly cyanogenic glycoside such as amygdalin and prunasin, which has an almond odor.
Symptoms can develop without warning and include: respiratory failure, loss of voice, muscle twitching or spasms, coma and death.
This tree is common throughout Eastern and Central U.S. and Canada, it is frequently found along fence rows, dwellings and streams. The fruit, seeds, bark, sprouts and trimmings are all toxic.
If ingested, it may cause loss of appetite, vomiting, bloody diarrhea, depression, irregular pulse, and weakness with a tendency to posterior paralysis and labored breathing.
This common hedge shrub is hardy from Southern New England to southern and western US. The leaves of this plant are the most toxic part, but all parts can present problems.
Ingesting any part of the plant part may cause abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle tremors, uncoordination, coma or death.
This evergreen shrub is found throughout the Midwest and the east coast. It is a very popular landscaping shrub around homes prized for its dark green leaves and large, showy white or pink flowers. The leaves pose a potential risk for livestock poisoning.
Symptoms include depression, excessive salivation, vomiting and coma which can lead to death.
This plant, found as a shrub or small tree, is quite common in the Northeastern and Eastern U.S. It is found in moist meadows, woods and sandy or rocky woods. The leaves contain toxic diterpenes known as acetylandromedols that can prove to be quite poisonous for livestock especially when eaten in quantity. Care should be taken to remove any plants that may border a livestock pasture area.
Symptoms include rolling, groaning, coughing, refusing to eat; marked salivation, vomiting, weakness, watery eyes, and nose; inability to stand, grinding teeth diarrhea, coma and a slow pulse.
Examine your fence lines; you can prevent possible poisoning from shrubs such as yew, boxwood laurel, burning bush, etc, by carefully trimming any growth that can be reached by your long necked animals. Make sure that the water is protected from falling leaves. The common oleanders of the south can poison drinking water by simply dropping leaves into water troughs. Many poisonous shrubs are extremely common and used for ornamentation and hedges. Vines such as jasmine and Virginia creeper are toxic. Herd safety should come before beautification. Leave your fence lines alone.
General Overview of Symptoms for Tree and Shrub Poisoning
Symptoms of poisoning from trees and shrubs will vary depending on the chemicals in each. Therefore, good ground management and good herd management are your best protection. Take steps to prevent access to questionable plants and provide your herd with an adequate, balanced diet. Most poisonous plants are not natural foraging material due to an unpleasant taste. However, hunger can cause animals to overlook poor taste.
Overview of Treatment for Tree and Shrub Poisoning
Unfortunately, there are few antidotes for plant poisoning. It is often difficult to determine the exact source of the poisoning, therefore, making specific treatment even more unlikely. Your vet may choose to induce vomiting or administer activated charcoal. However, treating the symptoms and supporting the animal through the critical phases may be the only treatment available.
Steps for Poison Prevention
- Plant all vegetable and flower gardens well beyond the reach of your alpacas.
- Carefully dispose of all garden clippings, garden refuse and yard waste well beyond the reach of your herd.
- Never add plant cuttings to the feed.
- Inspect your pasture for dangerous weeds.
- Inspect your fence lines for dangerous plants. Examine all plant and tree growth around your pastures and paddocks and trim or remove any unwanted branches that hang with reach of your alpacas.
- Be aware that herbicides can change the taste of poisonous plants and thus make them more palatable.
- Observe your herd; know their normal behavior in order to detect abnormal behavior.
- Well-fed alpacas are less likely to forage on unfamiliar or less palatable plants.
Article Written by Linda Long and Susan Muther