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What is Staggerbush Poisoning?

Staggerbush poisoning in dogs occurs when your dog ingests all or part of the staggerbush plant, the toxicity from which may result in symptoms like paralysis and sudden collapse. Also known as fetterbush poisoning, poisoning by the staggerbush plant in your dog can be serious and requires immediate medical attention. Staggerbush is popular in gardens in North America, with shiny green leaves and small pink flowers that bloom in the spring. One of about 1500 species in the Ericaceae family, staggerbush can grow from two to six feet tall. Some species of the staggerbush plant can reach 12 feet in height. Depending upon the species, the staggerbush may present as a plant, shrub or tree. Many people are unaware of how this plant is toxic to dogs and other small animals.

When your dog ingests a portion of the staggerbush plant, the neurotoxin grayanotoxin will enter his system, leading to mild or very serious symptoms requiring immediate attention.

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Symptoms of Staggerbush Poisoning in Dogs

There are numerous symptoms that may be demonstrated should your dog experience staggerbush poisoning. These include:

  • Weakness in your dog
  • Perspiration on nose and footpads
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Muscle spasms
  • Paralysis
  • Tremors
  • Lethargic Behavior
  • Collapse
  • Low blood pressure
  • Excessive salivation
  • Coma

Symptoms are typically dose dependent and can begin within a few minutes to a few hours after ingestion.


The staggerbush plant contains grayanotoxins, a neurotoxin that is found in a variety of plants to include:

  • Rhododendrons
  • Azaleas
  • Kalmia agnustifolia (sheep laurel)
  • Kalmia latifolia (mountain laurel)
  • Pieris species (Andromeda)

Honey made from the nectar of these plants may also include grayanotoxin and can be harmful to your dog.

Causes of Staggerbush Poisoning in Dogs

Once ingested, grayanotoxins contained in staggerbush will lead to poisoning in your dog. The grayanotoxins bind to the receptors within the sodium channels in cell membranes in a part of the sodium channel that participates in activation/inactivation, preventing inactivation. Due to this, nerve and muscle cells are kept in a depolarized state, allowing the entry of calcium into the cells. 

The symptoms that you observe (responses of skeletal and heart muscles, nerves and the central nervous system) are a result of the effects to the cell membranes.

Diagnosis of Staggerbush Poisoning in Dogs

Should you believe that your dog has ingested staggerbush, you will want to bring him to the veterinarian immediately. Even if it is after hours, ingestion of staggerbush is an emergency and you should locate a hospital that provides 24-hour care. 

A sample of your dog’s vomit will be helpful for the veterinarian so should he vomit at home or on the way, collect a sample and bring it with you. If you call the veterinarian prior to taking your dog, inducing vomiting may be recommended even before you arrive at their office.

Upon arrival, the veterinarian will examine your dog and consider his symptoms. Be prepared to answer questions about the symptoms you have noticed and for how long you have noticed them. It is a good idea to bring a sample of the plant that he ingested for your veterinarian to confirm what was ingested.

If vomiting has not already been induced, your veterinarian may do so prior to running tests. He will likely check on your dog’s hydration (through a packed cell volume test) and possibly begin intravenous fluid therapy to ensure your dog is hydrated. Other evaluation will be conducted to check on your dog’s organ function and may include:

  • Complete blood count and blood profile
  • Urinalysis
  • Biochemistry profile
  • Radiograph
  • EKG

Your veterinarian will want to check on your dog’s skeletal system should paralysis have taken place. Due to the seriousness of the toxicity, your veterinarian will seek to diagnose your dog quickly and begin immediate treatment.

Treatment of Staggerbush Poisoning in Dogs

Your veterinarian will seek to begin treating your dog immediately as this is necessary for his recovery from the poison. Treatment options may include:

  • Inducing vomiting (if this has not already happened) in order to get any plant particles out of the stomach of your dog
  • Giving your dog activated charcoal that will work to absorb any other toxins that are left and stop them from becoming further absorbed into your dog’s bloodstream
  • Intravenous fluids will help hydrate your dog and replace the electrolytes he has lost after vomiting and/or diarrhea
  • Oxygen therapy may be necessary to help your dog have more productive breathing and assist him in stabilizing; oxygen will also be necessary if your dog is having any cardiac or respiratory issues (your veterinarian may monitor his heart while he is on oxygen)
  • Medication will be prescribed based on the level of toxicity your dog has experienced
  • Treatment will likely vary based on how much staggerbush was ingested and how much time elapsed between ingestion and treatment

Recovery of Staggerbush Poisoning in Dogs

Unfortunately, not all dogs will recover from staggerbush poisoning. If your dog has responded to immediate treatment, he will still likely remain in the hospital for some time. It will be up to your veterinarian to decide when his health has stabilized to where he can return home.

Once your dog has returned home you will want to keep a close eye on him to see if any new symptoms develop. Follow up appointments will be necessary for your veterinarian to assess whether he is recovering well. 

A bland diet may be recommended for your dog so that his stomach and gastrointestinal tract can recover. You will want to administer any prescribed medication and follow the specific instructions given by your veterinarian.