Julian Norton: Nightshade worries for Bert

Evening surgery had finished and another busy day was drawing to a close. Since I was on call, it fell to me to deal with the list of telephone messages that had accumulated during evening surgery.

Read Julian Norton's weekly column first, in Country Week every Saturday, only in your weekend edition of The Yorkshire Post. Picture by James Hardisty.

First, I spoke to a lady about her horse. I had seen it a week or so previously, with a swollen leg. It had completely resolved with the medication I had prescribed, but had filled up again after the medication had finished – could she have some more?

Next, I reported the blood results of a beagle who was losing weight and drinking excessively, and then I had a long discussion with the owner of Rufus – a sheltie with more problems than you could imagine – about a lump that was becoming a worry; did we really need to operate or would a custom-made sling (to hoist the dangling lump) suffice to save the geriatric dog from another appointment with my scalpel?

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The final message was to call Mrs Lawson about her dog, Bert, who had eaten some Deadly Nightshade. This sounded serious, mainly because the plant had the word ‘deadly’ in its name. The dangerous compound in Deadly Nightshade is atropine – a drug with important medicinal uses. It is used regularly in veterinary medicine in the form of drops, to dilate the pupils of a dog or cat with uveitis (an inflammatory condition of the eye) and, in its injectable form, it is always part of a ‘crash kit’ for emergencies.

Dilated pupils were once seen as very attractive, hence the plant’s other name, ‘Belladonna’. Unfortunately, in a non-diseased eye, a dilated pupil allows too much light to flood on to the retina. This causes great distress, which is not so attractive.

So back to Bert.

“He loves eating berries, especially blackberries,” explained Mrs Lawson. “We were out walking and I stopped to chat to a friend. I looked down, and Bert was licking his lips and making a face. When I went to investigate, I could see some berries and I’m certain they are from the Solanaceae family. He is absolutely fine, but for me, this is history repeating itself.” She went on to describe how, several decades earlier, her daughter had done the very same thing. The little girl was rushed to hospital to have her stomach pumped. Some weeks later Mrs Lawson’s son confessed to having eaten just as many poisonous berries as his sister. Having seen the horrible stomach-pumping episode, he had decided to take a chance with the berries. Luckily, he was fine.

As we weighed up the pros and cons of inducing vomiting versus the likelihood of poisoning by the ‘deadly’ plant, the tension was broken by Becky, one of the camera team, who was ever alert to a good story.

“What’s this I hear about the dog?” she exclaimed. “The one that has eaten some deadly lampshades!” Having assured a slightly embarrassed Becky lamp-shades were not toxic to dogs, I arranged to call and see Bert on my way home.

As I rang the doorbell Bert came rushing to greet me, barking and wagging his tail. He looked absolutely fine. I shone my pen-torch into his eyes. His pupils were only slightly larger than they should have been and both constricted nicely under the light.

The three of us all agreed that no emergency stomach emptying was needed and, rather like her son had done years before, Bert got away scot-free.

Julian’s latest book, A Yorkshire Vet Through the Seasons, published by Michael O’Mara, is available now for £14.99.