Five alpacas dead from oleander poisoning

NICKI PADAR / AGGIE

Unattended brush pile source of deadly July accident at Antibodies, Inc.

Five alpacas died at Antibodies, Inc., an immunochemistry products and services provider in Davis, over the summer due to oleander consumption. The final investigative report from the company was recently made available by Stop Animal Exploitation Now!.

“We obtained the documents through the Freedom of Information Act,” said Michael Budkie, the co-founder of SAEN. “It was in the possession of the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare at the National Institutes of Health. We routinely file Freedom of Information Act requests with the federal government to obtain documents like this for every registered research facility in the United States.”

According to the official report from Antibodies, Inc., an employee collected leaves and trimmings into a brush pile near a pasture where the alpacas are allowed time outside. Eight alpacas were able to browse the pile for food on a Friday, and ate enough material that four were dead by Saturday morning. A fifth was euthanized later by a veterinarian after it was determined to be too sick to recover. A sixth alpaca survived the poisoning with kidney damage.

The animals were treated at the UC Davis Veterinary Medicine Teaching Hospital. The dead animals were examined and necropsied at the California Animal Health & Food Safety Laboratory, where oleander consumption was confirmed.

Antibodies, Inc. has alpacas at its facility to collect antibodies from their blood for research purposes. Although oleander is normally not accessible to the alpacas in their pasture, the report indicates the trimmings were collected “from an off-site location” into a nearby pile.

“Oleander is very common all over Northern California,” said Dr. Julie Dechant, a UC Davis associate professor in equine emergency surgery and critical care who serves as the designated camelid medical expert. “It’s in the roadway medians. It’s often a border around pastures.”

All parts of the plant, from the roots to the leaves, are poisonous. Oleander is appreciated for its pleasing appearance and use as a windbreaker. The leaves are bitter, but since the poisonous dose may only be a few leaves, foraging animals can become seriously ill. The heart and kidneys are the organs most severely affected.

“Palatability varies among livestock species,” said Dr. Pam Hullinger, the director of the California Animal Health & Food Safety Lab at UC Davis, in an email interview. “While oleander may not be as attractive to animals as hay or grain, livestock still will consume it on occasion.”

The symptoms of oleander poisoning in livestock are subtle. If an animal is suspected of having consumed oleander, only a few treatment options are available.

“Treatments are usually supportive,” Dechant said. “There is a potential antidote, which is actually for digoxin overdoses, but it’s cost-prohibitively expensive. We don’t stock it, because it is so expensive and clients can’t afford it. Often, we’re giving them activated charcoal, because that will bind the toxin in their intestinal tract. We’ll give them IV fluids because oleander affects the heart, kidneys, and intestinal tract. There are a few other treatments that are also supportive for the heart.”

The best way to keep animals safe from oleander poisoning is to keep the shrubs away from areas where animals can roam. Uprooting existing plants can be proactive.

“As with all plant intoxications in livestock, prevention is the best approach,” Hullinger said. “Unless an owner directly observes their animal eating oleander, oleander poisoning can only be diagnosed by testing for the toxin in the animal (serum, gut contents), animal tissues (after death) or in plant material.”

Allowing animals to die due to negligence in a research facility is a serious issue which requires immediate site changes. Training employees about the dangers of oleander, inspection of the pastures before releasing animals into pens, and sign installations are some of the changes made following the alpaca poisonings. More penalties may follow for Antibodies, Inc.

“The first thing that will happen is the USDA will investigate this incident, and they should issue at least one, if not multiple, citations under the Animal Welfare Act,” Budkie said.

 

Written By: George Ugartemendia — science@theaggie.org