Brunfelsia. It is known as the “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” plant because its flowers change color over three days.
It’s a lovely evergreen shrub that has found its way from South and Central America to gardens across the Bay Area. Brunfelsia is beautiful, but it can be deadly to pets, especially dogs, who are drawn to its berries and seeds. Another factor that makes it dangerous is lack of knowledge – many veterinarians, even those who have worked in emergency rooms for years, have never seen a case of Brunfelsia poisoning.
SAGE Dublin Emergency veterinarians have treated several dogs over the last few weeks who have snacked on Brunfelsia berries and leaves and fallen seriously ill. One dog stayed at SAGE Dublin for more than a week, and is now on the mend. Oddly, the dog had lived among the shrub for years and had never shown any interest in it. Until, of course, his parents were out of town on vacation and he likely got bored!
Here are some facts and figures about Brunfelsia:
It can be a challenge for veterinarians to diagnose Brunfelsia poisoning. Why?
From 2001 to 2017, the ASPCA reported about 12 cases per year of Brunfelsia toxicity in dogs. These are cases in which there was moderate to high confidence that Brunfelsia was responsible for the symptoms. So, not a very high incidence. When compared with other common tasty toxins that dogs get into, like chocolate, it’s easy to see how a veterinarian might not immediately diagnose a dog with Brunfelsia poisoning.
What is it about Brunfelsia that makes it toxic to animals?
Brunfelsia is in the nightshade family and many of the toxic effects come from compounds that interfere with neurotransmission such as that seen with strychnine poisoning.
There are two compounds in this plant that are toxic to animals (likely others have not yet been identified). One is hopeanine, which causes weakness, disorientation, stupor and paralysis. The other is brunfelsamidine, which causes excitement and tonic-clonic seizures, which are more rhythmic (tense, release, tense, release) movements of a limb or limbs. Brunfelsamidine can also cause death.
What are symptoms of Brunfelsia poisoning?
The toxins affect the nervous system and the gastrointestinal tract. Disoriented/strange behavior, staggering, trembling or twitching, and full out seizures are most common. Drooling, vomiting and diarrhea, with possible abdominal pain, are the gastrointestinal signs.
With major ingestions, it’s common to find the fruit pods in vomit or passed in the stool.
How do you treat Brunfelsia poisoning?
Of course, prevention is superior to treatment. Removing this plant from the dog’s environment is advised. This is absolutely not a dog-friendly plant.
When a dog presents with symptoms that suggest they ate something toxic, a veterinarian will start by inducing vomiting and then analyze the contents of the stomach. In the severe case of the dog that recently visited SAGE Dublin, Drs. Jason Dombrosky and Bob Lukas induced vomiting and immediately recognized the bits of plant and its fruit as something they had seen before. The pet was briefly anesthetized to flush the stomach via stomach tube (“pumping” the stomach). This anesthesia also stopped the seizures that had started.
From there, veterinarians spent 10 days giving multiple medications to control seizures, using enemas to continue flushing plant material from the intestine and colon, administering IV fluids to maintain hydration, and managing other aspects of the stupor/coma.
Veterinarians also provided a padded cage to help the dog avoid skin injury (ulcers or abrasions) and frequently turned him to avoid pressure on the downside lung. They also positioned the head and mouth/throat to avoid aspiration pneumonia, and placed a urinary catheter to prevent soiling. The catheter also assisted with measuring urine production. Veterinarians also gave the dog anti-nausea medications.
What is the prognosis after a dog ingests Brunfelsia?
The prognosis for recovery from this plant toxin is good with the proper care! Proper care is early identification of the toxicity and controlling seizures to limit brain and other body tissue injury (prolonged seizures can lead to heat stroke, brain swelling and aspiration pneumonia).
The biggest challenge is being “in it to win it.” This means multiple days in the hospital and weeks of TLC at home until the dog’s mental state and strength are back to normal.
The number of days in the hospital and weeks of home recovery depend on how much plant material the dog has eaten. Unfortunately, with a biologic toxin like this, the amount eaten cannot be measured in a way that is helpful to predict how long a pet will be ill. We have to take that day by day.
Sources: DVM360, “Toxicology Brief: Brunfelsia species: Beautiful but deadly.”