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Conkers and Autumn go together. They conjure up the essence of that ‘back to school’ feeling, perhaps because their gorgeous glossy mahogany colour echoes the shiny leather of new shoes.

When we see an abundant scattering of conkers under a horse chestnut tree, it’s hard to resist the temptation to pick a few up and put them in our pocket for later. Quite what we’ll use them for is another thing.

But although humans may be irresistibly drawn to conkers, you might be surprised to hear that they can be toxic for our four-pawed friends. Here, we have a closer look at these quintessential symbols of Autumn and discover how they can harm your dog.

What is a conker, exactly?

Conkers are the seeds of the horse chestnut tree. They’re contained in a bright green prickly covering that has to be broken open to reveal the seed inside.

According to the National Forest Inventory, there are around 470,000 horse chestnut trees in Great Britain. Many of these are in parks, gardens, streets and on village greens, all of which are popular places for people to walk their dogs.

Conker facts

  • There’s no proof that conkers repel spiders.
  • However, the triterpenoid saponin in conkers could deter moths.
  • Horse chestnut extract is said to improve circulation.
  • Deer and wild boar can safely eat conkers.
  • Despite the name of the tree, the seed of the horse chestnut is toxic to horses.

When do conkers appear?

Conkers usually start to fall from the trees in late September. The fact that the World Conker Championships take place on 11 October in Northamptonshire this year suggests that conker aficionados expect to be able to collect some prize specimens in early October.

This means that September to early October is the key time to expect to see conkers spreading out under horse chestnut trees this Autumn.

No goggles required

Conkers on strings

A few years ago, some schools banned the game of conkers on the grounds that it was dangerous. However, the Health and Safety Executive said that it was a myth that children needed to wear goggles to play conkers.

They said: “Realistically the risk from playing conkers is incredibly low and just not worth bothering about. If kids deliberately hit each other over the head with conkers, that's a discipline issue, not health and safety.”

Toxic to eat for dogs

The game of conkers may not be dangerous for children, but eating conkers can be hazardous for dogs. This is due to a chemical component in the seed called aesculin, which is also present in the leaves and bark of horse chestnut trees. (Incidentally, conkers are mildly toxic to children, too, and can cause a stomach upset if eaten.)

Don’t play catch with conkers

Conkers are extremely bitter, which generally deters dogs from eating them. However, every Autumn, sadly, some dogs are poisoned after eating conkers.

According to The Blue Cross, the animal welfare charity, dogs are most likely to eat conkers when children throw them to their pet in a game of catch.

Puppies can also be at risk as they’re inquisitive and love to explore their new world using their mouth.

Effects of conker poisoning

If your dog has eaten conkers, you might see the signs within an hour to six hours. Symptoms of horse chestnut poisoning include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Drooling
  • Abdominal pain
  • Disorientation
  • Excessive thirst
  • Loss of appetite
  • Seizures
  • Muscle tremors

A high dose of aesculin – caused by eating several conkers – could affect the central nervous system and might even be fatal for your dog.

Conkers can also be a choking hazard and can obstruct your dog’s bowel.

How to treat conker poisoning

If you suspect that your dog has eaten conkers, you should take them to a vet straight away.

Your vet is likely to give your dog a treatment that will induce vomiting and might wash out your dog’s stomach too. Your pup might also need an intravenous drip.

If there’s an internal blockage caused by conkers, surgery may be necessary.

Stay alert

Luckily, with the right treatment, most dogs recover from horse chestnut poisoning.

In the meantime, while you’re out and about this Autumn, steer clear of the spreading chestnut tree, tell your kids that conkers are poisonous for dogs, and carry a toy to distract your pup from those beguiling mahogany brown seeds.

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