Plant Toxicity Concerns for Goats

Emily Bebout, LVT
Veterinary Information Specialist
Pet Poison Helpline®

Goats are very independent and curious creatures. As part of their curiosity, they explore their world by mouthing and tasting things, which has earned them the unfortunate reputation of eating everything and anything. Among the barnyard animals, goats are the most fastidious of eaters and often will not eat hay that has fallen out of their feeder onto the ground. While this does help them to avoid eating toxic plants, there are still times when they will find what they think is a tasty edible that can have consequences.

Instead of grazing like sheep and cows, goats are browsers. This means that they tend to wander more and eat from plants that are at eye level. A few leaves from this, move on to another plant and so on. Their ability to stand on their hind legs and mobile upper lip allows them to reach tree leaves and other tasty greens that are not on the ground. Browsing is another defense against eating toxic plants because if they do eat some, hopefully it is not too much.

As a former dairy goat breeder and current veterinary professional, I have seen plant toxicity in goats. The most common plant toxicities for them are: Milkweed, Rhododendron, Mountain Laurel, Azalea, and wilted wild Cherry leaves.

Milkweed is often eaten during dry seasons when there is not much else to find to eat or if has been cut and baled up in hay. The process of it drying out does not reduce the toxicity concern and as little as 0.25% of the goat’s body weight can cause symptoms. Clinical signs will occur a few hours post ingestion and include weakness, unsteady gait, difficulty breathing, bloat, and dilated pupils. Immediate veterinary treatment and supportive care is needed to treat this.

Rhododendron, Mountain Laurel, and Azalea are all in the same species of plant. These plants are evergreens and goats will avoid eating them except when there is nothing else around. Winter and early spring are the most common times to see this type of toxicity. It takes only a small amount of these plants to be a concern.

Goats very rarely vomit, but ingestion of these plants will cause vomiting as the first sign. You may not see the goat vomit but can see evidence of it around their mouth. By this point they are often listless and at risk for having cardiovascular and central nervous system signs. This requires veterinary care. Activated charcoal can be given by the veterinarian to bind to the plant and it keep it from being absorbed as it travels through the GI tract. Other symptomatic and supportive care is often needed as well. This ingestion has a good prognosis if it is caught and treated early.

Wild Cherry Tree is not a problem for goats to eat the leaves when they are green. However, if they eat the leaves from a broken branch or that have fallen to the ground and wilted, it puts them at risk for cyanide poisoning. Symptoms of cyanide poison happen within 10 to 60 minutes and unless veterinary care happens immediately, often leads to fatalities. Most common symptoms include the gums turning bright red, weakness, staggering when walking, seizures, and difficulty breathing followed by respiratory failure.

As browsers, goats do a good job of avoiding toxic plants or if they do eat them, only eating a small amount. We can still help them out by walking their enclosures for any toxic plants that could be growing there. Cherry trees should be removed with care to get rid of all the leaves. Watch for Rhododendron, Mountain Laurel, and Azalea especially as things die off in the winter and there is not as much for goats to eat. Check in with the person you get your hay from to try and limit exposure to milkweed.

I hope this helps you keep your goats safer and know what signs to look for if you are worried about potential toxicity. If in doubt, always contact a veterinary professional or animal poison center for more help.