New Mexico pet hazards: PLANTS!
(There are some visual aids in the form of hyperlinks to pictures in this article- click if you're curious about what exactly we're talking about)
The plant that all Santa Fe residents know and (mostly) loathe is formally called "Tribulus terrestris," (sometimes also called "puncturevine") and it does not belong here- its native range is in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. Unfortunately for us, the goathead weed is a tremendously hardy plant that has well adapted to living in dry environments where other plants have a hard time getting a foothold, so it has spread over much of the Americas since it was introduced here in the early 1900s.
The primary threat goatheads pose to pets is one of physical injury due to stepping, lying, falling, or otherwise coming in contact with the spiked seed pods. The pods can generally be removed by pet owners without issue, but keep an eye on your pet during walks- if he or she suddenly comes up limping, there might be one of these little devils in a foot pad.
Anecdotally, goatheads seem to pop up most often near disturbed ground, like construction sites- you are probably more likely to encounter it along a sidewalk than along a trail in the mountains, so keep a sharp eye out! There are numerous websites with information about how to control a puncturevine/goathead infestation (here is a good link)- hopefully you can at least keep these weeds out of any backyard space where your pets spend time.
"Tribulus terrestris" has been demonstrated to contain some alkaloid compounds toxic to sheep, so ingestion of the plant may be toxic as well as traumatic. Also, fun fact: goathead extract has reportedly been found to boost testosterone levels, so it's been used by body builders and in folk medicine as an aphrodisiac!
Cactuses are everywhere! We have tall cactus (cholla), medium-sized cactus (prickly pear) and the sneaky little barrel cactus, all of which have gnarly spines that can cause you and your pet a ton of grief if they get stuck in the wrong place (fun grammar fact: "cactus," "cacti," and "cactuses" are all acceptable words to use when describing more than one cactus!).
People who have not spent a ton of time around cactuses tend to think of spines as big old white things that are very noticeable and fairly easy to extract. This is true some of the time, but old desert hands definitely know that the worst cactus spines are the wispy little guys that get stuck everywhere and are hard enough to see, let alone remove.
If your pet gets a serious face- or foot-full of cactus spines, it might be best to take him or her to a veterinarian, just to make sure no fragments remain behind to cause a potential infection or abscess.
Expecting your pet to avoid cactuses entirely is probably not realistic, but keeping him or her on-leash or on-trail in cactus country is a good start. Cactuses tend to be less prevalent at higher elevations around here, so maybe save the bushwhacking until you are hiking in that kind of an environment. Just as with goatheads, it is best to try and keep cactuses from growing in areas around the house where your pets spend time, even though they (especially the prickly pear and cholla varieties) are just beautiful in flower.
Grass seed (a.k.a. grass awns, foxtails)
We covered the grass seed problem pretty well in one of our recent Cases of the Week (link here), but let's recap the high points. Certain grasses, some of them common in Santa Fe, generate barbed seeds that are VERY good at working their way through fur and into skin. Once in the skin, they are extremely difficult for the body to break down, and may cause inflammation or abscesses. At that point, the patient generally has to be anesthetized or sedated to remove the offending grass seed.
After your pet spends time outside (on a walk or otherwise), it is a good idea to give him or her a quick once-over to check for and remove grass seeds, paying special attention to the ears and between the paw pads.
They look pretty harmless- at least to the naked eye- but don't be fooled!
The plants we have discussed up to now are mostly dangerous because of their potential to inflict physical injury on pets. "Datura stramonium," or jimsonweed, is worrisome because of certain chemical properties. It has been used by humans in folk medicine and religious rituals for a long time, reportedly having pretty powerful hallucinogenic and sedative properties.
Even its old-time users knew that datura was dangerous in certain doses. Modern science discovered that it contains a powerful chemical called atropine, which has a variety of uses in medicine. If administered improperly, however, the chemical can cause symptoms like heart fibrillation and elevated heart rate, as well as the hallucinations for which the plant was historically used.
Horses and cows are at higher risk for datura poisoning than dogs and cats, just because they spend more time grazing in the areas where the plant grows, but there are any number of pet owners who will tell you stories like, "I would never have believed my little Maximilian would have eaten that plant, until..."
If you are worried that your pet may have eaten datura, please bring him or her to a veterinarian as soon as possible.
There are, as it turns out, a ton of toxic plants in New Mexico, and that doesn't even include household plants (lilies, foxglove) that can be dangerous to pets. So, as a general rule, if your pet eats any plant, we encourage you to call your veterinarian and find out if there is any health risk associated with that particular specimen.