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Gooseberry Bushes: Deadly for Geese and Other Pets

Gooseberries (Ribes uva-crispa) Photo attribution license:

Gooseberries (Ribes uva-crispa) Photo attribution license:

Signs of Gooseberry Bush Poisoning in Geese

  • Listlessness
  • Wobbly or drunken gait
  • Loss of appetite
  • Extreme thirst, or refusal to drink
  • Putrid-smelling, watery diarrhea containing partially-digested leaves
  • Grinding jaw
  • Dropped wings
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Darkening of the legs (or comb)
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Dehydration (skin does not return to position when pinched)
  • Head drooping toward the ground

Gooseberry Bushes and the Hydrogen Cyanide Connection

Whenever most of us hear the word cyanide, perhaps we think of an old crime thriller, where a white powder is concocted in a lab by an evil genius who plans to poison someone. What we don't always remember is that cyanide is also contained in the natural world in the form of hydrogen cyanide (hydrocyanic acid) or HCN. In a concentrated form it is deadly, killing its victims in a matter of moments. But when administered or consumed over long periods of time in small doses, its symptoms may be confused with other ailments. Maybe you've heard that apple seeds contain cyanide. Of course one must eat a lot of apple seeds to be poisoned. Cyanide in its natural state protects plants against herbivores.

There are many plants that contain hydrogen cyanide as a defense against being eaten; however, one may have to dig deep into binders of research to read of cases involving poisoning caused by a particular plant, especially if those cases are not well documented or uncommon. It is such cases, and with common plants like the gooseberry—a member of the currant family—that mistakes can be made, even by the most conscientious gardener or pet/livestock keeper.

We may think we have covered our bases when we look through books of toxic plants, ask experts who have experience raising the plants/animals we are interested in combining, or secure an answer from the horticulturist/retailer from whom we obtain our flora. We may be Internet savvy and make a checklist of all the plants we have acquired for landscaping, making sure they are harmless to our pets, or other family members. We may even read about the farming of these plants and how livestock or pets are grazed within the crops or kept in the same environments where the plants are grown. Confirmations from a combination of sources might put our minds at ease, and so we dig holes, plant shrubs, and landscape our aviaries, duck pens, farms, and playgrounds.

To further complicate matters, if we plant gooseberry bushes, we have chosen a plant that offers edible fruits. Yes, we can think of many plant species that are partially edible: potatoes and tomatoes with their edible fruits and poisonous leaves; rhubarb with its poisonous leaves and edible stalks, etc. We have heard of the dangers associated with these garden favorites, but there are other poisonous plants we may not be aware of, even if we were raised on a farm or have been around them all our lives. Perhaps these plants have grown amid our gardens or chicken yards. Create the right circumstances, though, and some plants can be deadly.

Lucy and Wee-Woo enjoy organic greens from a local CSA.

Lucy and Wee-Woo enjoy organic greens from a local CSA.

The Toxic Gooseberry Bush

When researching the gooseberry, you may find a plethora of information about it being an excellent source of Vitamin C, or about the pies and jams you can make from the berries; you may read that the plant has been known throughout the ages for its medicinal properties. Some websites mention little more than it being "edible." After visiting site after site, it is easy to decide the plant is a good addition to any garden, livestock or pet area. In fact, as of the date this article was written, the popular go-to website Wikipedia mentions nothing about gooseberry bush toxicity.

Further confusion may occur due to the gooseberry's name. How apt that the plant is named after the goose, you may think. In-depth research reveals that the gooseberry's name has nothing to do with geese, but is actually connected, according to Wikipedia, to the Middle High German word krus (curl, crisped) and the Latin word grossularia.

If you use the chemical hydrogen cyanide as a search term in conjunction with gooseberry, then you will find information at Plants for a Future about the toxicity of Ribes uva-crispa, or the gooseberry bush. While there is a bright yellow caution symbol containing an exclamation point in the "Known Hazards" box, a number of benefits are listed before, at last, in one small sentence it states that "In excess, however, it can cause respiratory failure and even death." On the same page, it is listed below that both the plant's leaves and berries are edible, with the young, tender leaves mentioned as salad worthy. Furthermore, the plant is given a five out of five edibility rating.

Another site, The Tortoise Table, geared toward pet tortoises, takes a more conservative approach, stating that "The fresh young leaves of most Ribes species are said to contain small amounts of hydrogen cyanide and have the potential to cause serious problems if eaten in quantity" and recommends erring on the safe side and not feeding them to reptiles. But for this information to come up, one would need to be searching for "foods toxic or potentially toxic to tortoises."

But what about other pets, or even humans?

Lucy, an Embden/Toulouse gosling.

Lucy, an Embden/Toulouse gosling.

My Story

A few days ago my beloved four-year-old imprinted goose, Lucy, died from hydrogen cyanide poisoning after consuming a serving of "young, tender leaves" from a gooseberry bush that had been planted in her yard last spring. At the time the bush was added, I felt confident I had researched the plant thoroughly and found it to be safe. How did I miss the fact that the leaves of this plant contain cyanide? I must not have seen, in all the reading I had done online, anything about the plant being toxic to pets or humans. Still, I've been hard on myself, downright ashamed, actually. I feel as if I've poisoned my child. Friends reassure me that I couldn't have known, that I have always had the best intentions and given my birds the best care possible.

And yet, I gave my pets access to cyanide. In realizing how easy it would be for someone else to fall victim to this terrible circumstance, I've written this article. If I had had access to the information in this article before, would I have planted a gooseberry bush in the aviary? No way! Like most loving pet keepers, I've spent countless hours and thousands of dollars caring for my animals. So when a mistake is made--and we all know this, though it is difficult during times of grief to correct negative self-talk—we tend to ask a million why questions, even when we know nothing that we can possibly do will bring our loved ones back.

While I do not think Lucy's death was anything but horrifying and unnecessary, it has brought the toxicity of gooseberry plants to the forefront so that I, as a writer and animal lover, may spread invaluable news that I hope will prolong many lives and prevent thousands of grief-stricken hours from darkening the days of other animal lovers all over the world.

Dali, a Buff Orpington duck, enjoys a lush, spring afternoon.

Dali, a Buff Orpington duck, enjoys a lush, spring afternoon.

Stick With Pet-Safe Plants

Shameful and humbling is the experience of missing a crucial detail, no matter how elusive, when it comes to losing a pet due to one's own perceived carelessness. No matter how hard we are on ourselves, we make mistakes. There are numerous variables, many of which we cannot control. Fences give way. Things get moved around by other people. We are told the wrong information by so-called experts. We forget, misplace, and mix up. We are often busy juggling several tasks at once. Still, when an accident happens, many of us feel directly responsible, yet all we can do is inform others and learn from our sorrowful mistakes so that we may carry on with hyper-carefulness.

Lucy was loved. She died young and unnecessarily. Despite this terrible experience, it is my hope that this article is found by other proactive animal lovers, if not to prevent gooseberry poisoning, to remind us all how careful we must be and that it is better to be on the safe side and skip those gooseberry jams and pies, or whatever the case may be, and stick with well-known, pet-safe plants.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2013 Shanti Perez


Pam Thompson on June 10, 2019:

I keep various livestock, including muscovy ducks and geese. If they are able to graze freely and have an abundant natural food source, they won't *choose* to eat Gooseberry leaves. They *will* if that's the only source of green food available though.

Mifanwyn on May 31, 2016:

Thank you so much Shanti for wrting this warning article. I am a novice duck enthusiast of going on two weeks... AND where my ducks roam free in and around the vegetable garden there is a gooseberry bush growing. I will dig it up today and bin it. I want the ducks to roam where they like in the garden, two border collies guard them from predators during the daytime, at night they are penned up. I have many raspberries, blackcurrants, black and redcurrants growing in the garden do you perhaps know of other plants with the danger of cyanide poisoning for ducks and geese? I would really appreciate this sort of information. I'm sorry you lost your Lucy and I know she cannot be brought back but the way she died allowed you to grow as a person to help other duck and goose lovers so much that you wrote this excellent article thank you to you and thank you to your Lucy as well.

Emily Tack from USA on February 23, 2015:

I do not currently have a goose, but I did when I was a little girl. I did NOT know that gooseberry leaves were toxic to them.

We do have ducks and egrets and glossy ibis and...LOTS of other birds, so I will be sure to see that we do not have any gooseberry plants around. I don't know if they grow in our area, but am "off" to find out!

Sunny on November 20, 2014:

One of our geese died last night and 3 more have the symptoms of poisoning today! We found some small gooseberry leaf plants in an area of our field where there is still good grass. Our geese have never been interested in them and are getting some leaves as they try to eat the grasses below. Is death inevitable? We are trying to give them water and food but 2 of the 3 are not interested. Anyone have survival?

C E Clark from North Texas on July 26, 2013:

Pet owners need to be aware of these things.

Shanti Perez (author) from Spokane, Washington, U.S.A. on April 11, 2013:

aviannovice - In hindsight I'm surprised information about gooseberry bushes isn't more widespread all around due to the poisonous nature of the new leaves. Just awful. Most of the articles and reports I've read give the impression that the gooseberry bush is a medicinal, pie-making and totally edible plant with the leaves used in salads and for young girls' cramps. Now I will take no chances.

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on April 11, 2013:

I had no idea that the gooseberry plant was poisonous, either. I am so sorry about Lucy, and believe me, I will caution everyone that I know with animals to steer clear of the plant.

Shanti Perez (author) from Spokane, Washington, U.S.A. on April 11, 2013:

The least I can do is get the information out to everyone. Thank you so much. What a heart-breaking story you've shared about your childhood experience with those 5 goslings. Much love.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on April 11, 2013:

Sorry to hear of the death of your Lucy. But I thank you for the information you have provided. Often we do not know of the hidden dangers right in our yards.

When I was a wee bit of a girl, 5 baby goslings died from ingesting locust blossoms. It was a sad sad day

Thanks for sharing this information.

Sending Angels your way today :) ps