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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 12th May 2012

Usually, when I receive an email from someone who has completed the contact form on the website, I try and reply immediately. That is very easy to do if the correspondent has just been kind enough to say they’ve enjoyed visiting the site or if their question is straightforward.

Occasionally, I may need to take a bit of time thinking about how to word my reply so as not to give offence. For example, if someone emails to say that their daughter insists on having poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima, in the house at Christmas in spite of being told that, if the grandchildren eat just one leaf, they will die and can I please suggest how to get her daughter to appreciate the danger, I try to reply truthfully without suggesting that the emailer is really stupid to believe complete rubbish.

poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima

Euphorbia pulcherrima, poinsettia

Yesterday, I received an email that caused me to think very carefully about how to reply before deciding that, for the first time, I would simply not respond.

The contact form is intentionally very brief and simple but I do ask people to enter their title because I like to reply formally, at least initially. So, the first red flag waved in my face by this email was when she entered her title as ‘Herbalist’. Use of the female gender should be assumed to include the male because all I got was an initial not a first name.

'Herbalist' is not a title. 

But it was the body of the query that really worried me. I was asked for any references to works on using plants to euthanise sick or injured animals or my own opinion of what would be the best choice. It was said that people wanted to end the suffering of these animals not cause further trauma the way a lot of allopathic drugs do.

Use of the word ‘allopathic’ always interests me. It is a term constructed by Samuel Hahnemann (the man who didn’t invent homeopathy) from ‘allos’ meaning ‘opposite’ and ‘pathos’ meaning ‘suffering’. He intended it to denote medicine where remedies that act against the symptoms are used. Thus use of a laxative against constipation or a coagulant against excess bleeding would be allopathic as far as Hahnemann was concerned.

It has moved somewhat away from that direct construction and is now used to mean any normal, regular medical treatment. But, it is not used by normal, regular medical treaters. The use of ‘allopathic medicine’ is only by those who wish to promote ‘alternative medicine’. It is an attempt to suggest that mainstream medicine is just one way of treating disease or injury and that alternative medicine can stand alongside it as having equal merit.

The notion is that just as gloss and emulsion are simply types of paint and have equal validity so alternative medicine is the equal of medicine. Do you see what I did there? I’m not using the word ‘allopathic’ again in this piece because it is as bogus as the people who do use it.

Digitalis, foxglove

Digitalis, foxglove

Even more worrying was that my ‘herbalist’ correspondent was seeking confirmation that using Digitalis, foxglove, would be a trouble-free way to kill an ailing animal claiming she had been taught that foxglove would simply slow the heart to a standstill without causing the animal any distress.

There is just so much wrong with that it is hard to know where to begin.

Let’s start with the general point that use of a plant itself for medicinal purposes is a very stupid thing to do. Plants are known to produce different levels of their poisonous components depending on the specific growing conditions. It is said, for example, that warmth increases the amount of coniine produced by Conium maculatum, poison hemlock, so that plants growing in Scotland may be less toxic than those in the south-east of England.

The condition of the soil may make a difference to alkaloid strength so two plants only metres apart could have very different toxicity. And, where the plant produces the toxins as a response to attack, such as the Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed, that is believed to produce more furocoumarins if a root fungus is present, then the toxicity will depend on whether or not an attack has occurred.

‘Take five leaves’ is, therefore, not a way to describe a dose of a particular plant component.

As for the specific effects of foxglove, though it is true that the action of digitoxin is to slow the heart it is not true to say that it brings a peaceful, non-traumatic, death. Death from digitalis poisoning is usually the result of ventricular tachycardia, that is, very rapid heartbeats. This layman rationalises this apparent contradiction by assuming that the brain is not receiving sufficient oxygen from the slow-beating heart and, in a final attempt at survival, makes the heart beat as hard as it can.

An unknown dose of the toxins in foxglove could, therefore, easily produce some very unpleasant symptoms and may not, necessarily, produce death.

But that it not the only reason why using a foxglove plant with the intention of killing a sick or injured animal would be foolish in the extreme. Like many plants, Digitalis itself is strongly emetic so the likelihood is that severe vomiting would result from its ingestion.

All in all, then, not a way for anyone who cares about animals to administer care. By contrast my own experience of having to put pets down is that the vets who do it act with great concern and the drugs used are painless and cause the minimum of distress.

I’m sorry, I couldn’t be civil to anyone who thinks such drugs should not be used because ‘alternative’ medicine is to be preferred over medicine so I shan’t be replying to the email. 

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