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Heliotrope Warning

Claim:   The flowering plant heliotrope is toxic to dogs and can cause death to those who ingest it.

UNDETERMINED

Example:   [Collected via Facebook, 2013]

FB friends, we got the biopsy report back and with great sorrow I must share this... Our darling girl died from the toxin in this plant that I have on my deck. It is called heliotrope and is highly toxic, causes total liver destruction. The pathologist said our angel had the worst liver damage he's ever seen. Goldie would nibble at the leaves of this plant every so often and we had no clue it was toxic. (It can come in white or purple.) Please share with any dog owners you know to hopefully prevent their dog from becoming a statistic like Goldie. We are even more heartbroken now knowing her death was preventable. Please share her story so that something positive may come of it and create awareness of toxic plants. Our own vet had no idea this was a toxic plant!!

 

Origins:   Heliotropium is a genus of flowering plants which includes a few hundred different species commonly known as "heliotropes," the most well known version being a plant that produces pink-purple flowers as shown above. Heliotropes are generally found in the eastern U.S. from Florida up to New Jersey, and sometimes as far north as northern New England.

The ASPCA's Animal Poison Control Center article on heliotropes lists them as a substance which is toxic to horses and can induce liver failure in equines:
The plant is not very palatable, but will be eaten by animals with no other forage; poisonings typically occur from ingestion of green plant material or material in hay. The toxic components can cause liver failure, referred to as "walking disease" or "sleepy staggers". Signs include weight loss, weakness, sleepiness, yawning, incoordination, yellowish discoloration to mucous membranes (icterus), neurologic problems secondary to liver failure (aimless walking, chewing motions, head pressing). Animals may appear to be normal at first, then become suddenly affected; the syndrome progresses rapidly over a few days to a week.
The ASPCA's listing does not declare the heliotrope to be toxic to dogs, however. Likewise, other sources mention the toxic effects of heliotrope on horses, pigs, and cows but make no mention of dogs:
This plant should be considered toxic as it contains the pyrrolizidine alkaloids; lycopsamine, intermedine, and echiumine. Ingestion can cause severe illness and possibly death in horses, swine, and cattle. The alkaloids are potent liver toxins that under some conditions can be carcinogenic. For horses that have ingested a potentially lethal amount of the plant and/or are suffering advanced symptoms the illness has been termed "walking disease" or "sleepy staggers". The name being a reference to the fact that affected horses may appear blind and wander aimlessly, walking in circles or bumping into objects. Other visible symptoms that are typically associated with severe intoxication include: muscle
tremors, especially of the head and neck; frequent yawning, copper colored or red urine, difficulty or inability to swallow, horses may stop eating halfway through a mouthful of food; horses may stand with their heads held down, head pressing, dragging of the hind legs, causing the hooves to have worn tips, random attacks of frenzy and violent, uncontrollable galloping.

Once an animal begins to show signs of severe intoxication there is little that can be done to stop disease progression and inevitable liver damage. As a result prevention is the best treatment option. Luckily the plant is not very palatable and most animals will completely ignore it unless no other forage is available. Poisonings typically occur from ingestion of the green plant or when the plant becomes a contaminant in hay. Always check hay for signs of contaminants and ensure animals are provided plenty of quality hay and feed, if animals are left to graze ensure the pasture provides plenty of non hazardous plants to forage upon.
A good default is to assume that any plant can be toxic or cause an allergic reaction in your pet. If your dog or cat is nibbling on the leaves of something, take it away and check to find out if it's harmful. The ASPCA lists 448 plants known to be toxic to dogs, cats, and horses, and many of these are common houseplants.

Last updated:   22 April 2013

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