Yew plants are one of North America’s most toxic plants, with the Japanese Yew being the most common variety in the upper Midwest. These plants are relatively low maintenance, flourish in shade, and provide year round color in landscape plans, making them very popular ornamental plants. Unfortunately, with the severe winter weather, many yews were severely affected causing needles to brown. Homeowners are trimming these or removing dead or dying plants.
We encourage proper disposal of these extremely toxic plants as they are deadly to most animals even in very small quantities. Dried Yews retain toxicity for several months making them hazardous to domestic animals and people.
The amount of plant material required to obtain a lethal dose is quite small. The absorption rate is very rapid, often within minutes of ingestion. Symptoms of ingestion include nervousness, trembling, incoordination, difficulty breathing, and collapse with progression to the heart stopping, and death without a struggle. Cases of horses and cattle collapsing within 15 minutes have been reported. The simple act of a dog playing with a Japanese Yew branch is sufficient to cause toxicity.
Sadly, death is often the first indication of Yew toxicity, offering little opportunity for medical intervention. No specific antidote exists and successful treatment has not been demonstrated.
Last week, our practice was called to evaluate a case of sudden death of 20% of a cattle herd. During post-mortem exam, we found Japanese Yew plant material in the digestive tract. The consequence of this inadvertent Japanese Yew consumption is a devastating experience for both the animal owner and the veterinarian. Be aware of the plants, clippings, and die off in and around your yards and fields. Awareness of this hazard is vital.