Hellebore (Veratrum woodii)

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This page contains information regarding a plant "known to be poisonous" to goats as well as other animals. This information was researched from various resources. Please note, that the author is not a botanist or specialist regarding plants. This information is posted for your reference and comparison purposes only.

Hellebore - Click for a full size image Hellebore - Click for a full size image

ALSO KNOWN AS:
Green False Hellebore, White Hellebore, Indian Poke, (Lily Family)

DESCRIPTION:
Alkaloid Containing Plant - These perennial herbaceous plants have stout, erect, unbranched, 1-8 feet tall stems arising from short, thick rootstocks. There are clusters of large, broad, alternate leaves that to some people resemble garden cabbage or skunk cabbage. These leaves are parallel-veined and pleated like a skirt. Green to greenish-white, inconspicuous flowers occur in large terminal clusters. Veratrum woodii grows in woods or on hillsides and bluffs.

DANGEROUS PARTS OF PLANT:
All parts, especially the roots.

SIGNS:
False hellebore can cause toxicity in grazing animals or more commonly, cause birth defects. Both of these syndromes are more common in sheep than in other species. It is possible that the toxins causing birth defects are not the same toxins that affect the grazing animals. Since toxicity of grazing animals is exceedingly rare and usually not lethal, this section will briefly cover the grazing animal toxicosis, and will focus on the teratogenic effects of false hellebore.

The toxic component in false hellebore is a mixture of alkaloids (primarily jervine, cyclopamine, and cycloposine). In grazing animals that consume a toxic dose, salivation, gastrointestinal irritation, weakness, incoordination, decreased heart rate, and breathing difficulties may be noted. Rarely, animals may convulse and die.

More important are the effects that false hellebore has on fetuses. The toxins are known teratogens, causing developmental problems with lambs in utero. Specifically, if a pregnant ewe eats false hellebore on the 14th day of gestation, the lamb may die or have severe developmental problems. The problems in the lamb affect mostly the brain, skull and face, and the lambs can be born with a "monkey-face", or with the eyes in the center of the face ("cyclops") or hydrocephalus, or failure of the head to develop. These lambs are usually born dead or tend to die shortly after birth. In some cases, the ewes gestation is prolonged and the lamb grows too large, necessitating assistance at delivery or a C-section. It is possible that only one of a pair of twin lambs will be affected.

In addition to the well researched aspects in lambs, false hellebore, when ingested at any time prior to the 32nd day of gestation can cause many birth defects and death of the fetuses.

TOXICITY RATING:
Moderate to high, depending on individual circumstance.

ANIMALS AFFECTED:
Sheep are affected primarily, but chickens and cattle may also be at risk.

CLASS OF SIGNS:
Gastrointestinal irritation, salivating, weakness, trembling, heart problems, breathing difficulties, birth defects.

FIRST AID:
For grazing animals, treatment is symptomatic. Call a veterinarian if signs are prolonged or severe. Nearly all animals will recover once removed from the plants. For affected fetuses, there is little that can be done other than to assist the ewe in delivery, since some of the lambs are large and/or malformed.

SAFETY IN PREPARED FEEDS:
False hellebore reportedly remains toxic when dry, therefore feeds containing this plant should not be fed, especially to sheep.

PREVENTION:
False hellebore is a big problem in western ranges, but can affect animals in Indiana. The danger is particularly high with sheep. It would be best to keep all pregnant ewes away from false hellebore until after their 33rd day of gestation. In addition, plants are more toxic in the spring, and toxicity decreases through the growing season. The roots and rhizomes are considered to be more toxic (lethal), with the leaves containing more of the teratogenic (birth defect) compounds. Therefore, be cautious with animals who appear to be eating this plant, and attempt to limit all access to false hellebore as much as possible.

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