Contrary to popular belief, goats are very picky about what they eat. Their browsing abilities enable them to consume a wide range of forages found in virtually all climates. On the other hand, this means they are at a high risk of being exposed to various plant toxins. A goat may not consume a large amount of a single toxin, but even small amounts can have negative effects that are not immediately visible to the naked eye.

A toxin is essentially a poisonous substance produced by the cells of living organisms. These substances abound in nature, but what is toxic to one species may not be toxic to another. Toxicity levels can also vary from case to case. The amount of any toxic substance consumed, for example, has a significant impact on how much damage is done once consumed. Even the amount of toxin present in a plant at any given time can vary depending on its age, lifecycle stage, and overall environment.

Many people believe that "toxicity" implies that an effect should be visible and potentially fatal. However, neither of these statements is entirely correct. Toxins can be cumulative and/or have a long half-life. Sometimes they will harm different bodily systems, such as the digestive, reproductive, or mammary — but the animal appears to be healthy otherwise.

Several factors influence how quickly a toxin acts.

"If (toxins) are water-soluble, they will be absorbed faster because of all the fluid within the digestive system," says Virginia Tech's Kevin Pelzer, DVM. "Those fluids essentially migrate through the intestinal cells. If the compound is fat-soluble, it takes longer to disperse. Usually, some act or process within the gut is required to absorb those fats or fat-like toxins."

Toxins can also affect ruminants during the fermentation process, where they are activated as bacteria break them down. Toxins can also be absorbed by the GI tract, according to Pelzer.

The majority of goats consume toxic plants that they come across in the pasture. However, it does happen from time to time due to an unwitting caregiver.

Accidentally feeding decaying or moldy hay products can result in botulism, a paralytic disease that is usually fatal. However, feeding seemingly "good" forages can have disastrous consequences.

Pelzer uses the popular ornamental bush Japanese Yew as an example. Because it resembles a pine tree, which is perfectly safe for goats to consume, it may mislead people into feeding it without hesitation. Because of the high taxine alkaloids content, it is extremely toxic.

Many weeds, including fescue, nightshade, hemlocks, and pokeweed, contain various alkaloid compounds.

Plant with ripe and green berries known as American pokeweed, poke sallet, or dragonberries. Phytolacca americana belongs to the Phytolaccaceae family.

According to Pelzer, cattle that consume large amounts of fescue may experience decreased conception or stunted growth. Goats and sheep, on the other hand, do not consume as much and do not experience such severe side effects.

Before releasing goats, owners should survey the grazing area for the variety and quantity of high-alkaloid-containing plants.

Cyanide, one of the most potent poisons, can be found in a variety of fruits and seeds. Furthermore, because rumen microbes directly interact with cyanide compounds, goats are more vulnerable than animals with a simple stomach.

Cyanide is also found in pasture plants such as Russian knapweed, certain hemlocks, cassava, and even wild carrots. Because levels are highest when plants have new foliage, spring pasturing should be done with caution.

Other toxins found in plants cause less obvious metabolic issues. Brassicas, which include Brussels sprouts, cabbages, radishes, turnips, and rhubarbs, are an excellent example. While consuming small amounts of some brassicas may not be harmful,  Those who want to give their goats fresh fruits as a special treat must be very careful not to feed the seeds. Apple seeds, cherry and peach pits, and bitter almonds can all contain high levels of cyanide.

Overconsumption of certain types can cause serious problems due to high oxalate levels in some varieties, which can cause poisoning and kidney failure.

While small amounts of some brassicas may not be harmful, excessive consumption of certain types can cause serious problems due to high oxalate levels. Due to high nitrogen fertilizers, brassicas can also cause nitrate poisoning.

"Oxalates also bind with calcium," says Pelzer. "Many of these plant toxins inhibit or bind to minerals, preventing their absorption. As a result, despite eating so much of the mineral, the animal may not actually absorb it."

Brassicas, like calcium, can cause nitrate poisoning due to high nitrogen fertilization levels on these crops, which can inhibit magnesium and potassium availability. Bloating has been linked to certain brassicas found in pastures, such as grazing rape and turnips.

Pasture, weeds, and even the odd unusual treat can all contribute to a nutritious goat diet. But keep in mind that toxins can be found in all of these places. Identifying questionable plants and tracking how much they consume all help.