Toads have reputations concerning wicked witches - and as kids, we believed that if you touched one you would catch their warts, which is strange because wicked witches don’t exist and not all toads have warts!
Frog and toad jokes are too numerous (and corny) to mention, but in mediaeval Europe, toads were viewed as evil creatures that contained a potent poison and whose body parts had strange powers – weird beliefs, such as a toad’s presence will silence a room full of people, or that a small bone from a toad’s right side would keep water from boiling, and a bone from the left side would repel the attack of dogs. Toads were also popular as poisonous ingredients in potions, and it was said that ‘the women-witches of ancient time which were killed by poisoning (sic) did much use toads in their confections.’ Male witches were also purported to use toads in their poisonous magic.
Frogs and toads are amphibians, but share some things with us humans – they are vertebrates and have similar internal organs, but their skin is where the difference lies. The skin - and ‘warts’ if they have them - contain the poison mentioned in myths, to ward off attackers.
But they aren’t actually warts at all, they are glands - the warts we humans get are from a skin infection caused by the human papilloma virus, known as HPV.
Like all amphibians, toads breathe through their skin as well as with their lungs. When a toad is inactive the skin usually absorbs enough oxygen to meet its needs, but during and after activity, a toad often supplements its supply of oxygen by actively breathing air into its lungs. Unlike us, they do not make regular and rhythmic breathing movements but bring air into their lungs spasmodically as the need arises – the air enters the toad’s mouth through the nostrils, and by raising the floor of its mouth, the toad forces the air into its lungs.
The Natterjack Toad, the Common Toad and the Iberian Midwife Toad are all native to Portugal, and all have poison ducts. The Natterjacks have poisonous glands on their yellow dorsal, and because of these poisonous glands, they are the least preyed on amphibians. The Natterjack is in danger of extinction because of problems that are the fault of people - global warming is causing the sea level to rise, and places where Natterjack Toads live will become flooded. The sea is salty but Natterjack Toads can only lay their eggs in freshwater.
Is the Common Toad poisonous? Yes. Prominent raised glands on its shoulders and neck exude a mild poison, while skin glands are distasteful to predators. Despite its glands and ancient associations with witches, the Common Toad is actually a gardener’s friend, sucking up slugs and snails!
The Midwife Toad is the one that behaves differently to the other two. Adult males wrap strings of eggs around their hind limbs immediately after fertilisation (hence the name ‘Midwife Toad’) and carry them until they are ready to hatch, at which time he deposits them in a suitable pool.
Like some of the others, the Midwife Toads store poison in their ‘warts’. When it feels threatened, it will excrete the strong-smelling poison from the glands on its back. If attacked, the toxin is so strong, it can kill a venomous adder snake within hours.
If you think your pet has had contact with a toad, the symptoms will include excessive salivation or drooling, which gives the appearance that your pet is foaming at the mouth. Vomiting, bright red gums, pawing at the mouth, disorientation, dilated pupils, panting or difficulty breathing are all accompanying things to look for, and a call to your vet will definitely be in order.
I have toads in my own garden who appear after rain and have had one dog suffer some distress by foaming and uncontrollable quivering for some hours after picking one up, but because he was a big dog and had dropped it immediately we yelled at him he got over it, but a smaller pet might well have a different, and more serious, outcome.
Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man.