What is Winter Cherry Poisoning?

Winter cherry contains a slew of toxins, including solanine, solanum capsine, dopamine, phentamines, aramines, and fluoxetine. All parts of the plant are poisonous, but the berries seem to have the highest levels of toxins. Ingesting enough of this plant can be fatal, especially in small animals such as cats, although recorded deaths from winter cherry poisonings are rare.

Solanum pseudocapiscum, or winter cherry as it is more commonly known, is an indoor plant often cultivated as a holiday decoration. It also goes by the names “natal cherry” and “Jerusalem cherry”, and is a member of the Solanaceae family of plants. Winter cherry produces small, star-shaped white flowers. As the flowers are unremarkable, it's the interesting foliage and bright red fruit that make this plant attractive. The leaves may be patterned with creams and dark greens. The berries come in green and become red over time, not unlike a tomato. The plant flowers just before winter, and the fruit lasts all winter long. The winter cherry is native to South America and cannot survive the frost.

Symptoms of Winter Cherry Poisoning in Cats

Symptoms from eating the winter cherry may be delayed in their onset. Gastrointestinal issues are the most common result of ingesting the plant. Central nervous system problems may develop in severe cases. All signs to watch for include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea (may contain blood)
  • Abdominal pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Excessive drooling
  • Drowsiness
  • Lethargy
  • Depression
  • Dry skin
  • Constipation
  • Dilated pupils
  • Hypothermia
  • Ataxia (unbalanced gait)
  • Confusion
  • Seizures
  • Vertigo
  • Dyspnea (difficulty breathing)
  • Tachycardia 
  • High fever
  • Shock
  • Respiratory paralysis
  • Coma

Causes of Winter Cherry Poisoning in Cats

Any cat who is allowed indoors may at some point come into contact with a winter cherry plant if it is brought into the home. These plants are often sold at Christmas time to be used as a festive, indoor decoration. Most cats will be deterred from eating a large portion of the plant as it causes extreme irritation, although some cats with a curious nature may pursue ingestion until dangerous amounts have been consumed.

Diagnosis of Winter Cherry Poisoning in Cats

If you notice your winter cherry plant has been damaged or see your cat sampling the plant, take it into a veterinary clinic or animal hospital immediately. Tell the vet which type of plant your cat has ingested if you are aware of the situation. The vet may choose to begin treatment before making a diagnosis. Provide your cat's full medical history to assist the vet in making treatment decisions. The vet will also take into consideration what plants you have growing in your home and if it is near the holiday season, as multiple decorative plants cause a toxic effect in cats. 

The veterinarian will then perform a complete physical examination of the cat during which all vital functions will be measured. The cat may be suffering from abnormally low body temperature, or it may have developed an extremely high fever. Pulse and blood pressure will be checked, which may reveal a rapid heart rate in the cat. The cat's chest may need to be x-rayed, and an electrocardiogram may be started to monitor the heart. Blood tests will be run to measure all levels of cells and minerals in the cat. Dehydration may lead to a low number of electrolytes. Urine tests may also be needed to see what the body is pouring out in the urine. 

Treatment of Winter Cherry Poisoning in Cats

Treatment for winter cherry consumption is mainly symptomatic. Emergency medical care may be required in some instances. The faster that treatment is administered, the better chance of recovery the cat has. 

Empty Stomach Contents 

The veterinarian will do this either by emesis with hydrogen peroxide to make the cat vomit, or by using gastric lavage to wash the stomach of its contents with a tube.

Activated Charcoal 

This will be given to the cat to absorb harmful toxins in the stomach and intestines, preventing them from being digested. 

Fluid Therapy

If the cat has become dehydrated from prolonged symptoms of poisoning, intravenous fluids and electrolytes will be supplemented to stabilize the animal.

Recovery of Winter Cherry Poisoning in Cats

In general, cats who have eaten winter cherry have a good chance of recovery, as long as prompt treatment has been received. Symptoms should disappear within one or two days. Death from winter cherry ingestion is rare, but possible. Ensure that any winter cherry plants in your home are well out of your cat's reach. Some may chose to use a faux version of the plant to decorate their home, as these cause no threat to animals.