I have a few azalea bushes around my house and this time of year, they are in full bloom. Their bright magenta pink blossoms cover the plant and I’m in love with their vibrance. I am reminded when I see these lovely plants, however, that they are in fact toxic to humans, pets, and livestock. And while I don’t have to worry about myself or my dog around my bushes, the ones who get into trouble most often are goats.
Azaleas contain a toxin called grayanotoxin, and it is potent. Fresh foliage ingested at even just 0.1% of a goat’s body weight is enough to make the animal sick — that means just 0.1 pound to a 100 pound animal. If you know goats, you know they are capable of munching far more than that in a very short space of time.
Once ingested, azaleas cause intense stomach pain and bloating. Usual cases of azalea toxicity I see involve groups of very miserable goats that appear to be having the worst tummy aches of their lives. Often, toxicity is accompanied by vomiting.
Azalea toxicity can be fatal. The toxin can affect the heart, leading to rhythm disturbances. Neurologic impairment can also occur, followed by convulsions and death. This is influenced mostly by how much the goat has consumed.
I most frequently see azalea toxicity in two scenarios: either the goat owners have azaleas around their home or barn for decoration and are not aware they are toxic to the goats, or a well-meaning neighbor has dumped hedge clippings into the goat pasture for the goats to munch on, not knowing the clippings contain azaleas.
Azaleas aren’t the only decorative plant that’s toxic to livestock. Mountain laurel and rhododendron are two other commonly encountered toxic plants, both producing similar signs to azalea toxicity.
Although clinical signs and testimonies from witnesses who’ve seen the goats eating toxic shrubs are the most common clues as to the cause of the sick goats, occasionally you’ll have a case where you’re not sure azaleas are to blame. In such cases there are laboratory tests that can be run on urine or feces that can detect the presence of grayanotoxin to confirm a diagnosis.
Practically speaking, when encountering a barn full of miserable, vomiting goats, what do you do? Since there is no antidote for the toxic compound in azaleas (or mountain laurel, or rhododendron), supportive care is your only option. Bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol) or activated charcoal can be used to coat the stomach and prevent further absorption of the toxin. IV fluids are also usually given because the sick animals are likely dehydrated and sometimes shocky. Continued hydration with electrolytes should be performed and when vomiting is finished, yogurt with live cultures can be given orally to restore gut flora.
When I visit new goat owners, I try to do a cursory peek around their house and barn to see if I spot any of the offending plants. If I do, I strongly voice some words of advice: Remove those plants ASAP. Sometimes new goat owners will try to assure me that their goats would never venture into the front yard or get that close to the house, or that the goats are fenced in and would never gain access to those plants. In such cases I cast them a knowing glance. You have goat to be kidding me, I say.
Dr. Anna O'Brien