Danger in the garden
Richard and Michelle Rankin want people to know about the toxic danger lurking in Auckland's parks.
The Rankin family's two-year-old English cocker spaniel Alonso had to be put down after he ate fallen berries from a neighbour's karaka tree a few weeks ago.
"Our neighbour had no idea they were poisonous and he's starting to take the trees out. He's been very good about the whole thing," Mr Rankin says.
"We really want other people to know that these berries are very toxic and they are a risk at this time of year.
"Our main concern is around other people suffering the loss of a pet due to these berries or, God forbid, small children eating them."
The native trees are common in parks, council reserves and private gardens across the city.
The seeds contain a neurotoxin – 3-nitropropionic acid – and the powerful alkaloid poison karakin.
Alonso first became sick last February but got well relatively quickly and the vet thought he might have had a gastrointestinal problem.
"Another neighbour's dog was sick then too," Mrs Rankin says.
"At that time Alonso was vomiting and the other dog was having serious breathing problems. It turns out both are symptoms of eating karaka berries."
This year Alonso wasn't so lucky.
"At first he just vomited and I thought `I should monitor this'," Mrs Rankin says.
"I went to collect our youngest son from school and by the time we got home again it was like Alonso was paralysed. I thought `Oh my God, he can't move'."
The Rankins took him to a vet before transferring him to the Manukau After Hours Veterinary Clinic.
"He was arching and convulsing as Richard was carrying him in. His breathing was irregular. It was awful," Mrs Rankin says.
"We had to put him down in the end.
"If he'd lived he would have been paralysed and wouldn't have been able to eat or anything."
After hours vet Dr Mary-Ruth Doole was trying to find a cause of the illness when the Rankins mentioned Alonso might have eaten berries in the garden.
"I do a lot of native planting so when they brought a cutting in to show me I immediately knew it was karaka," she says.
Mr Rankin says the Poisons Centre told them that karaka causes convulsions and can shut down the respiratory system.
"We've made a suggestion to the council that they put together a leaflet about dangerous plants and include it in the dog registration packs.
"We really want people to know about it so they don't have to go through what we did."
National Poisons Centre medical toxicologist Michael Beasley says the centre occasionally gets calls about karaka poisoning.
"Dogs certainly seem to be the most common victims and we think that's because they can crunch the kernels or seeds pretty well so they get a much higher dose of the neurotoxin from a one-off exposure," he says.
"We rarely receive calls about children eating them and when we do they seem to only have gut problems but, even so, it's not the sort of plant you'd want in kindergartens or gardens where kids might get into it."
Auckland Council manager of biosecurity Jack Craw says there are many other poisonous plants in New Zealand.
"There are much more toxic plants around like yew, lantana and foxgloves.
"They're much more toxic," he says. "Once in a while we do hear about young animals who have eaten karaka but they're a much-loved native plant and it wouldn't be appropriate to pull them out of every park.
"But we would like to remind people that there are poisonous plants out there and it's important to be careful about what you let animals and children go near."