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Oleanders a danger to pets, children and even adults

Published: Jul. 22, 2011 at 11:15 PM MST|Updated: Nov. 11, 2015 at 4:27 PM MST
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For children growing up in Tucson it's a lesson learned early. Oleanders are dangerous.

But for newcomers it's a lesson they should learn.

"The plant is very toxic," says DVM Heather Connally, an emergency room vet at Veterinary Specialty Center in Tucson.

She sees one, two sometimes three dogs every month which have ingested Oleander leaves or flowers.

It's difficult to determine how many poisonings there are because accurate records are not kept and shared among the 150 vet clinics in the Tucson area.

If dogs get aggressive treatment early, they usually don't die. But without treatment, survival is iffy.

"They have seizures," she says. "In later stages they become comatose and of course, die from it."

Arizona's poison control sees many cases of poisoning.

"It's very common for us to get a call about an animal who has ingested oleander," says Keith Boesen, the managing director.

He says the entire plant is toxic, "leaves, flowers and roots."

But he also adds, determining whether an animal will die is not an exact science.

"What we don't know about oleanders is is two leaves a problem, three leaves, ten leaves," he says.

The toxicity is determined by the health of the plant and the season. If a plant is healthy and in full bloom, it's likely more toxic and will take less to cause serious damage.

That's one of the reasons why it's been so hard to determine whether the giraffe at the Reid Park Zoo will survive or not.

Denver, the 23 year old female, has not eaten for several days after ingesting oleander leaves given to her by a paid apprentice at the zoo.

Her mate, six year old Watoto, died in less than 24 hours after eating the plant.

"Every reaction is different," says Boesen. "Animals could eat the same amount and have different outcomes."

The fact Denver won't eat has zoo officials very worried.

"Her condition today is worse than yesterday," says Jim Schnormeier, a curator at the zoo.

But animals not eating after ingesting oleander is not uncommon.

"They often won't eat for several days," says Connally. "They're usually okay without food for several days."

Zoo officials have decided it's time to remove the oleanders from the perimeter of the zoo. They've been in place for a half century and provide a buffer for noise and traffic around the zoo.

This is the first time there's been an accident like this but it appears the zoo has been lucky up to now.

"Having the oleander stay in place is just another accident waiting to happen," says Schnormeier.

The zoo is looking for donations to help take out the oleander and replace it with something else, something that would not be toxic to its animals.

If you'd like to help you can donate to the zoo.

The zoo will do an internal investigation to determine if policies need to be changed and if changes are needed to its apprentice program.

But it appears, the problem is fairly widespread.

"We've had people who didn't know it was toxic and made tea out of it and gotten ill," says Boesen. "We've had them use the flowers in salad and get sick from that."

If a dog starts vomiting, it can be a sign it has eaten oleanders and needs emergency treatment. And the sooner the better.

"It can be very quick," says Connally. "Within a couple of hours up to 24 hours."

If the vet can't figure out right away why a young dog is suffering from an irregular heart beat, a few questions might solve the puzzle.

"Sometimes the owner doesn't know until we ask them if they have oleanders," she says.

That will often solve the problem and get the animal on an intensive treatment which can last a week or more.