Andrea Safir and Ginger
Andrea Safir and Ginger smile for a photo on the day she adopted her. Credit: Andrea Safir

When North Berkeley resident Andrea Safir realized her puppy Ginger was unconscious, she rushed her beloved adopted companion to an animal hospital in Oakland. It was too late, the vet told her, and nothing could be done, as Ginger had most likely eaten a death cap mushroom. To prevent a more painful death, Ginger was euthanized.

Safir blames herself. Ginger was “like a whale,” Safir said, in that she tried to eat everything she encountered, including rocks and small pieces of wood. That morning, during a walk at Codornices Park, she had taken off the leash to let the energetic puppy run more freely. For a few minutes, she let her out of sight.

Learn more about fungi by attending an event put on by the Bay Area Mycological Society

The symptoms began to appear more than six hours later when Ginger became uncharacteristically sluggish during an afternoon walk. It wasn’t until they got home that Ginger dozed off on the couch, likely from a drop in blood sugar level. “I thought she was sleeping,” Safir said. “Ginger and I were tremendously bonded, and she was at my side on the sofa. There was nothing that indicated that she had lost consciousness.” 

Safir said she wishes she could have learned the risks posed by poisonous mushrooms in an easier way.

The invasive death cap mushroom is generally a winter and spring species and likes to grow under coast live oak and cultivated cork oak trees. It’s the most common cause of mushroom poisoning in the U.S. Credit: Debbie Viess 

There are many types of mushrooms in the East Bay. Most are harmless — and more than a few are delicious — but two are among the world’s deadliest. Amanita phalloides (death cap) and Amanita ocreata (destroying angel) contain amatoxin, a chemical compound that causes liver failure in pets and people alike. Deadly amatoxin can also be in Galerina and Lepiota species found in the Bay Area.

Mushrooms tend to thrive after heavy rains, but when it comes to deadly amanitas, it’s not a hard and fast rule, said Debbie Viess, a retired zoologist who founded the Bay Area Mycological Society and spends hours each day answering queries on Poisons Help, a 159,000-member Facebook group that helps identify mushrooms and plants. 

“Mushrooms don’t behave the same all the time. They have windows of fruiting and they have times that they like to fruit,” Viess said. “Amanitas share resources with many other mushroom species on the same tree. Sometimes they take turns, and sometimes they compete, so there’s really no predicting what’s going to come.”

While there’s nothing wrong with frying up some chanterelles or hand-churning candy cap ice cream at the Tilden Fungus Fair, Viess says it’s a good general rule never to eat a foraged mushroom you can’t identify. “Size is variable and color is variable, and that’s why it can be really difficult to identify mushrooms if you’re not experienced,” Viess said.

In 2016, there were 1,328 emergency department visits nationwide and 100 hospitalizations from accidental mushroom ingestion, according to a 2021 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At least 14 of those hospitalization cases occurred in December in Northern California due to death caps, which bloomed after heavy winter rains, CDC researchers wrote in a 2017 study. Three people, including a 1-year-old, had to receive liver transplants, but all survived.

The native destroying angel is less common and also grows under coast live oak. Credit: Debbie Viess

Others have had worse luck. Two men died in January 1997 after eating death caps in Northern California: one was a 68-year-old who picked them from a golf course, and the other was a 32-year-old forager that made a fatal mistake, according to a 1997 CDC report.

The California Poison Control System hasn’t received any reports of mushroom-related deaths in Alameda County in 2021 or 2022. But they get frequent fungi calls: the system took 71 calls for human mushroom exposures in Alameda County in the last two years. Most were harmless, but one person experienced serious health problems, and 11 others had minor to moderate effects.

The system’s data showed spikes in calls for patients between 1 and 3 years old and those in their 20s, who are presumably “getting into stuff more deliberately,” said Stuart Heard, CPCS executive director and UCSF School of Pharmacy dean. He advised people to use caution and eat mushrooms from grocery stores, not friends.

Statistics for pets are harder to come by, but around Berkeley, cases of mushroom ingestion and toxicities are most likely to happen about two weeks after a nice rainfall. The PETS Referral Center animal hospital in Berkeley sees about 20 suspect mushroom poisonings each year, depending on the rainfall.

California Poison Control System operates a free hotline at 1-800-222-1222.

“As dogs are more curious with their mouths than cats, dogs are over-represented in mushroom ingestion cases,” Jessica Jennings, PETS medical director, wrote in an email. “Some mushrooms even have a slight fishy smell, which is tempting to dogs.”

Jennings added that cases of “true toxicity or death are rare.”

Symptoms depend on the type and amount of mushroom ingested, but range from mild vomiting and diarrhea to more severe depression, excitation, excessive drooling, muscle tremors and seizures.

Peter Bowie, an emergency vet who’s seen at least 50 mushroom poisonings cases in pets throughout his 24 years at the Pet Emergency and Specialty Center of Marin in San Rafael, said most cases are fatal. Once symptoms start, 90% of patients will die, Bowie said. In those cases, vets often recommend euthanasia to prevent a prolonged, painful death. 

While it depends on the specific mushroom ingested, chances of survival improve if an owner can get their pet to the vet before symptoms kick in, giving vets an opportunity to try and empty the pet’s stomach by inducing vomiting and feeding them a charcoal capsule, which can bind to the toxin so that it’s harmlessly eliminated from the gastrointestinal tract. 

Ginger enjoyed climbing trees and frequently ran “like the wind” with all four paws in the air. Credit: Andrea Safir

Since Ginger’s death in January 2022, Safir hasn’t adopted another pet, though she would eventually like to. “I will not try to replace her,” Safir said. Nor could she, even if she wanted to: Ginger had an unmistakable temperament, and was a born actress. At obedience school she always showed off her best behavior; at home she was a “rascal.” But once Ginger climbed onto Safir’s lap, facing her feet, all offenses would be immediately forgiven.

When Safir sees a dog running off-leash in areas where mushrooms are growing, she approaches its owner to warn them of potential danger. She’s also taken to social media to tell her neighbors.

A few weeks ago, Safir noticed a cluster of mushrooms growing by her front steps. She promptly destroyed it.

If you know or suspect that your dog has eaten a mushroom you suspect is poisonous:

  1. Contact a vet or the ASPCA’s pet poison hotline immediately at (888) 426-4435 (Note: consultation fees apply). Time is of the essence.
  2. Meanwhile, take detailed photos of the mushroom from several angles. Be sure to capture the size of the mushroom, either using a pen or another object, stems, and gills. (If allowed, the North American Mycological Society recommends you take a sample of the same mushroom, put it in a paper bag and keep it refrigerated until it can be examined.)
  3. Take note of your surroundings. Is the mushroom growing in a garden box or a forest? What types of trees are growing nearby? 
  4. Consult a mushroom expert. Post on the Poisons Help Facebook group or contact a North American Mycological Society volunteer for emergency identification help.

Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...