Trees to Plant (or Avoid) for Goats
Many plants can make goats sick. It’s best to be cautious of what trees you plant.
Though goats have a reputation for eating everything from laundry to tin cans, they’re usually pretty good about avoiding toxic foliage. Usually — but not always.
Most caprine owners have a decent grasp of what shrubs and ground plants their animals should avoid and what is safe. But what about trees?
Goats have a high tolerance for bitter plants or plants with high tannin content, which is why they can tackle some obnoxious weeds. However, this tolerance can backfire with toxic plants such as milkweed or cherry.
Plant poisoning in goats is dependent on many factors: how much material was consumed, the animal’s age and size, the portion and age of the plant eaten, the amount of ground moisture (drought makes certain plants accumulate toxins), the animal’s health, whether a goat is lactating, the season of the year, etc.
A huge factor in poisoning is whether the nutritional needs of the animals are being met. Under normal circumstances, goats avoid poisonous plants. Overgrazing, drought, or unbalanced rations can drive goats into eating toxic plants. Sadly, a major reason behind poisoning in goats is starvation, when the animals are desperate and will eat anything.
But goats are also just plain curious, a trait that can get them in trouble. If they’re able to browse on a wide variety of plants, nibbling on a plant with poisonous compounds may not be fatal (with a few exceptions) because the detrimental effects are diluted. While proximity to toxic plants is crucial in prevention, sound management is more critical. It’s up to you to know what toxic plants are in your area.
There are two types of poisoning: chronic and acute. Chronic poisons accumulate over time. Acute poisons are immediately life threatening. Goats may also get “mechanical injury” by consuming plants with spines, fine hairs, burs, alkali crystals, or other abrasives that can damage the gut.
Symptoms of plant poisoning can range from mild (reduced activity, reduced food intake) to severe (lack of coordination, convulsions, blindness, erratic behavior, quick death). Treatments must be rapid: remove the animals from the pasture where the toxic plants are found, get the affected animals into dry, warm, shaded areas, let them drink clean water, and (of course) call a veterinarian immediately.
Over 700 plants in North America are considered toxic, not to mention hundreds of exotic species used as ornamentals. There are fewer trees that cause issues. Here are some of the most common toxic trees:
- Alder buckthorn
- Arborvitae (thuja tree)
- Bitter almond
- Black locust
- Buckeye (horse chestnut)
- Chinaberry tree (Persian lilac, white cedar, Texas umbrella tree)
- Golden chain tree (Laburnum)
- Holly (trees or bushes)
- Honey mesquite
- Kentucky coffee tree
- Lasiandra (glory bush)
- Laurel (all types)
- Mountain cedar (eastern red cedar)
- Mountain laurel
- Spruce (in quantity)
- Ponderosa pine (in large quantity)
- Red maples
- Red pine (in large quantity)
- Rhododendron (very deadly)
- Savin juniper (Juniperus sabina)
- Sugar gums and many eucalyptus
- Wild cherry
- Yew (all species, including African and Japanese)
It’s worth noting what trees you might find regionally or specifically on your property. The Prunus family of trees, for example, consists of plums, cherries, peaches, nectarines, apricots, and almonds and are common on homesteads. These trees can cause significant distress to goats if the leaves are consumed when wilted. Bitter almond leaves contain the compound cyanogenic diglucoside amygdalin, releasing toxic hydrogen cyanide in the animal.
Wild cherries are common in some areas and have resulted in many goat deaths. Animals ingesting wilted cherry leaves experience the release of cyanide (HCN) into the bloodstream. This potent toxin can cause symptoms within 15 to 20 minutes of ingestion. References state that if the animal does not die in the first hour, there is a good chance for recovery. The limp leaves (green or partially yellowed) which are still connected to the plant stems are the most dangerous. Once the leaves have fallen off, the toxicity drops.
Some tree parts are fine in small amounts. Oak leaves, for example, are fine in limited quantity; but over time, they may cause damage to the bone marrow, ultimately resulting in anemia. Goats often eat black locust leaves with no ill effect; other times, they can cause taxalbumin, leading to death.
In short: Research what trees your goats have access to. When in doubt, don’t permit goats to eat a particular type of tree.
With all this scary stuff, are there any trees safe for goats to eat? Of course! Consider the following list, though keep in mind too much of anything can be bad, so these items should only be fed in moderation:
- American sweetgum
- Bay (leaves)
- Brazilian pepper tree
- Mountain ash
- Oaks (bark, twigs, leaves, acorns) in small quantities
- Southern bayberry
- Staghorn sumac
- Tree of heaven
- Wax myrtle
A note about evergreen trees: There is a lot of conflicting information about which ones are safe for goats. Yews of all sorts are wildly poisonous. Juniper, spruce, Douglas fir, hemlock (the tree, not the poisonous plant), ponderosa pine, red pine, and cedar can be eaten in small amounts. Still, they can be problematic if ingested in large quantities. The key to letting goats eat evergreens is knowing the species (to avoid the poisonous varieties) and moderation in other species.
This article has been vetted by Dr. Katie Estill DVM but is not meant to constitute veterinarian advice. If you have a question about the toxicity of a particular plant, consult your local veterinarian and/or county extension service.
Originally published in March/April 2022 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.