Poisonous Plants for Goats: Avoiding Dastardly Disasters
Kat Drovdahl Mentions What NOT to Feed Goats
Reading Time: 7 minutes
by Katherine Drovdahl MH CR CA CEIT DipHIr QTP
Do you have poisonous plants for goats on your property? Check this list then consult your extension office to find what else may be local.
Darn it. My normally well-behaved thirteen-year-old LaMancha, Timmie, had wandered past her normal snack of salal and Oregon grape leaves. Gazing at the edge of my yard as I headed to the house for a quick errand, I found fresh bite marks and missing sections of leaves on a rhododendron. I knew I couldn’t ignore this.
I grabbed my cayenne and DTox and went to work within just minutes of her forbidden salad consumption. Other than being a bit more tired/sleepy than normal for the following 24 hours, we had her back up to normal speed in less than a day without any other symptoms. And yes, the barnyard is being fenced in this spring. Meanwhile, Timmie is on barn arrest, even though the incident was 100% my fault for trusting a goat to stay out of them!
Nowhere can we find an “all-inclusive” list of toxic or poisonous plants for goats, and most of those lists will be generalized for all livestock or specific livestock. Reader Kristen Fife provided this highly curated list from Cornell University. I will go over just a few to watch out for. Your local veterinarian, county extension office and your state or local jurisdiction veterinary college can give you a list of additional problem plants often found in your area.
Knowing what to feed goats involves education. Even good plants can develop into a dangerous toxic condition called enterotoxemia if goats overeat on any plant they are not used to. I avoid problems by taking ten days to change feeds or slowly introduce new ones, as well as examining all hay for unknown or known problem plants. I also make sure that my greedy goats are well fed in their paddock in the morning before they are allowed out in their pasture, to reduce the likelihood of overeating on something. In addition, I do not feed brush from friends or neighbors, as it is too easy to have offending plants mixed in.
Mushrooms are usually only ingested if they are mixed in grass clippings from weed-eating or mowing. Do your goats a favor and compost clippings, rather than feed them, to avoid mushroom and mold hepatocidal (liver death) properties.
Yew is a beautiful coniferous small, green-needled tree that is popular in landscaping and is an American native. Just one bite of needles can stop a heart in seconds to minutes, which is why you won’t find it at our farm. Be watchful at livestock exhibitions, as this plant can be in displays in and near barns.
Poison hemlock (and also water hemlock) is extremely dangerous. Children have even perished from making straws from its stem. All parts of this plant are poisonous, whether fresh or dry. Poison hemlock prefers moist areas and can show up as a single plant to large groups and can be from several inches tall in a garden bed to four feet. Spring is when this parsley-looking, white-umbel-flowered plant with a smooth, vascular (open like a straw) stem that will be streaked, filled or spotted with purple. I occasionally find a plant or two coming up in my garden or my flower bed and have had it lining pastures. Always wear rubber gloves when pulling this plant and don’t breathe the volatile oils. Stop if you smell the musty, mousy scent when you pull it. Poison hemlock works by shutting down the nervous system, causing communication to the heart, lungs, and brain to slow down to nothing. Do not confuse this plant with the medicinal, valuable herb and feed plant Queen Anne’s Lace or Wild Carrot. That plant has a solid, thinner, and thicker-density hairy stem, without any purple on the stems. It likes dry areas and comes up in summer. The telltale way to identify this plant is to look at the inflorescence (flowers). A central crimson-colored flower will be surrounded by white flowers.
Rhododendrons and azaleas are popular evergreen, spring-blooming landscape shrubs that are also native to the Northwest. They can be from a foot tall to cabin-sized and are very poisonous plants for goats. The leaves and flowers (and honey made from the pollen) cause a decrease in blood pressure and irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia), nausea and vomiting. I do not know the dosage, but it does not take a lot of “rhody” leaves to kill a goat. And if you are unable to get them turned around, they will suffer in the process. They tend to be attracted to the glossy leaves, so this is another plant to fence off from wayward goats. A friend of mine lost several goats last year when they ended up at a neighbor’s and mowed down several plants. With a lot of work, she also saved several.
There are many landscaping plants and flowers that are poisonous plants for goats. Some of those are boxwood, cotoneaster, all types of laurels, oleander, many types of lupines (bluebonnets), larkspur, delphinium, daffodils & narcissus.
Consuming a quantity of green leaves, acorns or blossoms on black, red or yellow oak trees can be disastrous. They are very high in tannins and can cause liver and kidney damage, leading to death. Oak leaves, piling up in stock waters, can leach enough tannins to cause the same problems. My well-fed goats used to eat fall leaves and acorns from white oaks without problems other than reducing their milk production because white oak still has a tannin content, but not as high as the others. They did not have access to the green leaves of white oaks, which would also cause a problem. There were about 30 goats fighting for a few fallen leaves after their morning feeding and milking. I certainly wouldn’t have let them eat all they could of those, either.
Dried or wilted maple leaves of all types can cause Hemolytic Anemia, which is a condition causing the destruction of red blood cells in the bloodstream. Red maples are the worst offenders because of the number of leaves they can dump in a single day, but many types of maples, in the right conditions, have caused problems. We removed a giant old red maple from our pasture when we moved here. It’s made lovely firewood and a section of the base is in our goat pen for a climbing toy.
Leaves in any stage of wilt from prunus species plants are cyanogenic. Goats usually get into this problem when a pit fruit plant has leaves fall or blow in, or a branch come down, into their pen or pasture. Consumption causes oxygen in the bloodstream to be unusable, which causes suffocation. Cherries, plums, prunes, peaches, nectarines, pluots, apricots, and chokecherry in wild or domestic forms are all offenders. I do give my goats fresh prunings of these plants. Fresh means I cut 3 or 4 branches at a time and toss them in the pen. And I only toss enough in for them to eat within 10 minutes and they need to clear out all of the leaves. I don’t have remaining leaves, feeding this way, but if I did I would handpick them and put them in the compost or burn pile. If I get distracted by a phone call or anything else and am standing a few minutes, those branches become kindling or find the burn pile.
Ponderosa pine needles can cause abortion in ruminants if enough is consumed. Because goats are attracted to pine needles, and because they can be available in large quantities on the ground in the winter months when there isn’t much else to munch on, I would want to eliminate any ponderosa in my pasture if possible. If you want to plant pine, there are literally dozens of species to choose from that are not known to cause this problem.
Bracken or Brake ferns are tall & thick-stemmed ferns that contain a toxin that is accumulative in nature. It is an endorphin-causing plant, so animals get addicted to it. Goats tend to overdose on it faster than other animals, since they, by nature, are already attracted to brush. They should never have access to this plant. Get rid of it or fence them out of it. Bracken is guilty of causing severe anemia from hemorrhaging. It is also a carcinogen and can cause thiamine deficiency, which leads to polioencephalomalacia (goat polio) in goats, which is a fatal goat disease without intervention.
Tomato leaves, stems & blooms (uppers), green potato skins, and upper plant parts from datura and nightshade plants all contain concentrations of alkaloids. These alkaloids can cause toxicity from eating a very little of some (such as datura) or, more frequently or in a large quantity, of others such as tomato leaves and greened potato skins. Early symptoms are confusion, overheating, vision issues which can head into convulsions, coma and then death.
Rhubarb leaves should never be fed to anything in any quantity, due to their kidney-destroying compounds like an extremely high level of oxalic acid.
Besides eliminating all the toxic plants you can from your goat’s environment, there are some other precautions to reduce the likelihood of problems when caring for goats. First, we make sure our goats are always well fed, every morning, while they are contained in their paddock. Also, make sure they always have access to minerals such as kelp to avoid deficiencies that could get them seeking weird plants to fill an unmet need. We have eliminated toxic plants and trees near pastures as well as fenced animals away from problem plants. I’ve even removed productive prunus species fruit trees (ouch) that were next to goat pens.
Here’s to happy and healthy goats!
What other poisonous plants for goats are specific to your area and climate? Let us know and help other readers.
Katherine lives with her beloved husband, gardens, and creatures near the Olympic mountains in Washington state. She gives wellness consultations and offers herb products for animals online through Fir Meadow LLC. She is a lifelong pet and livestock owner and carries a Master’s Degree in herbalism and alternative degrees/certifications in aromatherapy, iridology, and energy medicine.
Katherine Drovdahl authors Kat’s Caprine Corner of Goat Journal, focusing on the holistic side of caring for goats. Do you have a goat health question? Email them to firstname.lastname@example.org and they may be used in our next print issue.