What is Jerusalem Cherry Poisoning?
Jerusalem cherry, Solanum pseudocapsicum, is a member of the nightshade family. Also called winter cherry, Madeira winter cherry, or natal cherry, it is native to Peru and Ecuador. It grows as an outdoor perennial in warmer climates where frosts are only mild, but it is more commonly known as a houseplant and a Christmas decoration. The plants produce small white flowers in the summer and orange colored berries around Christmas time. The fruit appears similar to cherry tomatoes (another member of the nightshade family), but it is toxic for humans and even more so for dogs. The leaves are also considered poisonous if ingested.
The main toxin in Jerusalem cherry is solanocapsine, an alkaloid that is similar to solanine and atropine found in the other nightshade plants. It is not usually fatal for humans, but it can cause severe gastrointestinal problems, especially in children who may mistake the berries for cherry tomatoes. Dogs will also experience gastric upset with symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea followed by muscle weakness, respiratory difficulty, and CNS symptoms in severe cases. Immediate veterinary treatment will be necessary since Jerusalem cherry poisoning can cause respiratory and circulatory failure. This will depend on the size and weight of your dog and the amount that was ingested. Most dogs don’t eat more than a few berries and deaths are rare.
Jerusalem cherry is a houseplant that produces small white flowers and orange colored berries in the winter. These berries look and taste similar to cherry tomatoes, but they are toxic for dogs and humans. Ingestion of large amounts can be fatal.
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Symptoms of Jerusalem Cherry Poisoning in Dogs
Look for these symptoms in a dog that has eaten Jerusalem cherry.
- Diarrhea with blood
- Excessive salivation
- Poor appetite (anorexia)
- Signs of abdominal pain
- Depression and apathy
- Dilated pupils (mydriasis)
- Muscle weakness
- Difficulty breathing
- Irregular heartbeat
- Solanum pseudocapsicum (Jerusalem cherry)
- Solanum capsicastrum (winter cherry or false Jerusalem cherry) has been considered a different species, but now it is mostly defined as only a variant cultivar; the leaves are greyish green and the berries are brighter; it may be somewhat less toxic than traditional Jerusalem cherry, but this often depends on the individual plant
Causes of Jerusalem Cherry Poisoning in Dogs
These are the risk factors for Jerusalem cherry poisoning.
- A Jerusalem cherry plant growing in your house
- Jerusalem cherry growing in your garden (warmer climates)
- More common at Christmas time
- Dogs that tend to eat fruit or berries
- Small dogs are more at risk
Diagnosis of Jerusalem Cherry Poisoning in Dogs
Finding juice or seeds on your dog’s mouth can help to diagnose Jerusalem cherry ingestion early. If you have a plant growing in your house or garden, pay special attention to broken stems or leaves and missing berries. Otherwise, symptoms of vomiting and bloody diarrhea may be the first sign of a problem.
Call an emergency veterinary clinic or a poison helpline any time you think your dog has eaten a plant that could be toxic. Jerusalem cherry poisoning can be fatal, so this is especially important in this case. Be prepared to describe the plant exactly and make an estimate as to how much was ingested. The agent will also need to know the size and weight of your dog.
Get in person treatment for your dog as soon as possible. Bring a sample of the plant with you for identification. Veterinary diagnosis will also be based on symptoms and a history of exposure to the plant. Blood tests can help to determine the level of toxicity, however these results may not be immediately available. Analyzation of vomit or stomach contents may help if you are unsure what plant your dog has ingested.
Treatment of Jerusalem Cherry Poisoning in Dogs
Don’t induce vomiting unless specifically directed by a veterinarian or a professional poison helpline agent. Wash juice and seeds from your dog’s mouth and any other area of topical contact. Give him milk or water to drink to help dilute the toxins.
If poisoning was recent, the veterinarian may induce vomiting or use gastric lavage to wash out the stomach under anesthesia. Activated charcoal is often given to reduce absorption. Other treatments will be symptomatic. Many of the toxins in Jerusalem cherry are poorly absorbed orally, so symptoms may be mainly gastrointestinal. If CNS symptoms are present, they will be treated medically. Fluid levels will be maintained intravenously as needed. Your dog may need additional oxygen to support breathing and help stabilize the heart rate.
Recovery of Jerusalem Cherry Poisoning in Dogs
Your dog’s prognosis will depend on the amount that was ingested, the size of your dog, and the individual toxicity level of the plant. Some plants could be more dangerous if they contain higher levels of readily absorbable toxins. Immediate treatment can reduce the severity of symptoms and improve your dog’s chances. Many dogs do make a complete recovery from Jerusalem cherry poisoning, but this can be best determined by a veterinarian.
The most effective way to manage the problem is to avoid having Jerusalem cherry in the house. Ask your veterinarian for advice about non-toxic houseplants. Avoid substituting holly in a Christmas decoration as this plant is also toxic. Artificial versions of both plants will last longer and be safer for your dog. If you do keep a Jerusalem cherry plant, put it out of reach of your dog especially during the winter when berries are present. Warn visitor with children about the plant’s toxicity.