Rhea's Recovery - An Experience with a Probable Plant Toxicity
If you have livestock, you will eventually deal with livestock losses or illnesses. To be very blunt, they will all die. Every one of them. If you cannot deal with that, livestock may not be for you.
Hopefully, all animals will be well-cared for and die as painlessly and quickly as possible, whether that be from old age or a humane dispatch. That is our job as breeders and owners - to care for them to the best of our ability and call on aid from others if situations surpass our ability. You are probably going to have to make some tough calls. You are going to have to learn to live with the decisions you make.
So, I want to share a story about Rhea.
Rhea kidded in February 2019 with twins, as a 2YO FF. She was doing very well. Good body condition score and milking well. She was eating hay, what browse/pasture there was, a 16% dairy ration with the herd, and was also getting pulled out for extra grain with another first freshener doe. Rhea is a picky eater - she hates alfalfa pellets. Picks at Chaffhaye and alfalfa. Picks at beet pulp.
Despite her pickiness, though, she was doing well! Until April. In April, I started letting the goats into the top field. It had been allowed to rest and had been sown with quite a bit of cool weather forage, so it was growing well.
I noticed sweet Rhea going off feed a little, lying around a little more than usual. I checked a fecal - no eggs. Checked her temp - no fever. FAMACHA score was good. No snot, no cough. Normal pellets. Basically nothing to indicate any health issue. That is one of the most frustrating things about goats - sometimes they give you NO clues as to what is wrong!
But, over the course of a few days, she started eating less and less. I tempted her with everything I could think of that is usually palatable to an ill goat - pine needles, honeysuckle, leaves, tender new grass - in addition to her normal rations. She nibbled a bit but just had no appetite and was dull and listless. I gave her probiotic, rechecked her temp and fecal several times, but nothing out of the ordinary. During this short time, she lost a LOT of condition. You cannot make a goat eat if that goat does not want to eat. Then, she bloated. Severely. I found her lying in the guard dog’s house, and I thought she was gone. I got her out and drenched her with vegetable oil (flavored with kool-aid so she knew to swallow it - it is basically tasteless otherwise) since I had no other bloat treatment. I did pick some up, and I much prefer it over the oil. I spent hours massaging her rumen and elevating her front end to get burps. She felt and looked so terrible, and I was at such a loss as to what was wrong, I seriously considered calling the vet to euthanize her. But her bloat was improving. This whole time, I had been scouring the internet and textbooks trying to figure out what the heck was going on, and I was seriously beginning to suspect hemlock poisoning. "Cattle, horses, and goats are considered to be the most susceptible domestic animals although other animals can be affected as well. Symptoms of poisoning can occur rapidly anywhere within 30 minutes to 2 hours depending on the animal, quantity consumed, and other ecologic factors. Toxicity varies depending on stage of plant growth, location and environment. Poison hemlock foliage has an unpleasant mouse urine-like odor, detectable when near the plant or when a stem or leaf is crushed." - https://www.drovers.com/article/be-aware-poison-hemlock. The neighbor’s entire field was covered in it, and I knew there was a small patch in our corner but I kept it chopped out as best I could. Since the woven wire fence was old, it was entirely possible she was reaching through to snack on some or found some that I had missed. That’s the thing about goats – they do NOT always eat what is good for them. They have acres of safe pasture and browse, but some of them seem to LOVE hemlock, especially the young florets in the spring. I haven't seen many learning sources that note this, but I have observed it in my own herd and read of others observing the same thing - goats that are in good condition and that have ample, safe forage STILL chowing down on this toxic plant. Hemlock poisoning symptoms vary pretty widely, and can also be similar to several other issues, but include: bloat, excess salivation, and lack of coordination – all of which she was displaying. I think she was eating small amounts, and it took a few days for the symptoms to really set in. Or maybe she ate a little then ate a significant amount in one sitting. I don't know. I just know by her symptoms and process of elimination, it seemed she was dealing with a plant toxicity. With this in mind, I treated her with activated charcoal on April 17th. She made enough improvement after that treatment, I was pretty convinced a plat toxicity, most likely hemlock, was the culprit. She was given more treatments. The general recommendation on the activated charcoal I keep is 1ml to 2.2lb body weight, twice a day. Bloat treatment is also a large volume, so between it and the activated charcoal, I had to administer several 30ml drench gun doses a day. My sweet Rhea, who is usually the first to greet me, started hating the sight of me. That is one of my least favorite things about managing ill livestock – they do not always understand you are trying to help. She just knew I kept shoving a drench gun full of icky stuff in her mouth. But the medicine was necessary - all you can do is try to keep it as stress-less as you can and give the sensitive ones some extra affection to apologize. During this time, I pulled her kids. Much younger than I normally do, but they were eating well hay, forage, and grain well. Rhea dried up almost immediately. Even though I had the bloat under control and the charcoal drench had certainly seemed to help, it was still hard to get her to eat much. The only reason I did not have her put down one day was because she walked out and took a few nibbles of grass. At one point, I believe her rumen stopped functioning entirely – I couldn’t hear a single gurgle. So, I sat in the dark barn for what seemed like an eternity, waiting near the goats with a spoon and a baggy. Poor Priscilla offered some cud first – she was not happy about it. But I had the best probiotic you can give a goat. I got cud from three healthy goats, made a warm “cud tea” and drenched Rhea with the smelly green juice. I know that kick-started her rumen. Slowly, oh so slowly, she started eating again. For several days though, she would be very slightly bloated in the morning. I gave her small doses of bloat treatment. I kept offering lots of safe forage, especially leaves to avoid parasite larvae, in addition to her hay. I learned reoccurring bloat is possible after episodes of hemlock toxicities or even just from her rumen being so out of whack. Eventually, she stopped bloating, and I started SLOWLY introducing SMALL amounts of grain again. As she improved, I started increasing her grain ration. I started offering small amounts of alfalfa hay, always watching her for signs of any rumen distress. I kept checking fecals, since parasites love to take advantage of an ill animal. I added dry beet pulp to her ration, and she started eating it. I remember the first time I saw her feel good enough to trot instead of plod. That felt like real progress! Then she started feeling good enough to pick fights with other does when I reintroduced her back to the herd. Then she felt good enough to run down the hill! Then good enough to buck and twist and play!
It seemed to take SO long to get her back in decent condition. It took a long time for her spring coat to shed off. But she did! By fall, she was back to optimal condition - down below is a timeline. The photo on the cover of this blog post is from late November. If you have any take away from this, let it be these few things – ALWAYS keep activated charcoal on hand. Keep in mind that not all farm stores carry it, and if you need to administer it, you need it NOW. Cud tea from healthy goats is the best probiotic you can get. Palatability trumps common sense, sometimes, and goats might eat things that are harmful. This was not the first time I’ve dealt with a plant toxicity in the herd. It wasn’t the last. I know it can be next to impossible to identify and eliminate every toxic plant on a property, especially a large property, but poison hemlock, to me, is one worth hunting down. Below is a timeline to show just how long it took her to recover. I did not get a photo of her at her worst in April, but she was skin and bone and absolutely listless. I am very thankful Rhea recovered. This year, she is healthy as can be, raising a FAT single doeling.
More sources on poison hemlock and plants toxic to goats. Most extension offices will also provide lists of toxic plants in your area. -