Throughout Autumn and Winter, animals (mostly dogs) are partial to the ingestion of red berries, whilst on a walk or in the garden. It is often difficult to identify the species of plant, and therefore recognise whether ingestion is a toxicological risk. Here, we will discuss the two red berries most commonly reported to the VPIS.
Cotoneaster species, is an evergreen low-growing shrub/tree commonly found in gardens and public parks (particularly in south-eastern England). The plant has small oval green leaves which are dark and shiny on the upper side and pale on the underside. The plant bears small white or pale pink flowers from May to August and an abundance of round bright red berries from June or July onwards. The berries are usually about 5-8 mm in diameter, have a mealy pulp and contain up to three seeds. Berries may remain on the plant until winter. Dogs and cats often remain well following ingestion of Cotoneaster berries, but gastrointestinal signs may occur. There is a potential for cyanogenic glycoside toxicity if a large quantity has been ingested, but severe Cotoneaster poisoning is rare and more likely to occur in herbivores.
Yew (Taxus baccata) is a slow-growing, evergreen shrub/tree found throughout the UK, which may grow to a height of about 20 metres. The leaves are needles up to 3 cm in length with two pale green bands on the underside. The seed is about 5-7 mm long, brownish/purple in colour when ripe, green when unripe and ovoid in shape. It is enclosed in a fleshy aril that is green when unripe and red, or sometimes yellow, when ripe. The aril, which is often misidentified as a ‘berry’ is usually about 7-11 mm long and about 7-8 mm wide and the seed is usually visible through it. All parts of the plant are toxic, including dried clippings, with the exception of the fleshy red (or yellow) arils. Sudden death is the most common sign in livestock, but few severe cases have been reported in dogs. In VPIS cases half the dogs remained well. Gastrointestinal upset with vomiting and diarrhoea is common in dogs. In severe cases, cardiovascular dysfunction may occur.
The VPIS can advise on specific treatment for animals with clinical signs; we may also be able to assist in the identification of unknown red berries.