By: Orvis Staff
A backyard is a dog’s outdoor kingdom, and he surveys every inch of it every day. There are always new scents to investigate, shrubs to mark, and maybe even some grass to eat. Because he explores the world with his nose, mouth, and paws, keeping your dog safe in the yard requires cautious and thoughtful gardening and pest control.
The pesticides and fertilizers you use to help your garden grow may eventually wind up being ingested by your dogs, cats, neighbors’ pets, and backyard wildlife. A 2015 study in the journal Science of the Total Environment found pesticides in the urine of 19 out of 25 dogs after the chemicals had been applied to their lawns. Pets pick up the chemicals by walking through treated areas and licking their paws later, eating treated grass, or chewing on dog toys and tennis balls left outside when pesticides and fertilizers were applied.
Pesticides can make your dog and other pets ill, and they’re life threatening when animals ingest an excessive amount—such as when a container is left open and accessible, or pellets on the ground aren’t fully absorbed or diluted. Fertilizers can give your dog an upset stomach, but are most dangerous in high quantities, for example when a dog consumes them directly from a container. The molluscicide metaldehyde, used to kill slugs and snails, is also highly toxic to dogs and is best avoided completely.
Thankfully, it’s possible to protect your garden from pests and keep your back yard green and lush, while also keeping your dog safe. Here’s how:
Rethink Your Lawn
The typical emerald green turf lawn is not natural and requires a fair amount of water and maintenance to sustain. Many homeowners and landscaping businesses rely on a variety of pesticides and fertilizers to keep their grass green and weed free. Consider the possibility of allowing the grass to grow with only the aid of rain (or water collected in rain barrels) and sunlight. Chances are your grass will lose a measure of rich color through the seasons, but shifting your mindset is better for your dog and, as a bonus, better for the environment.
Other low-maintenance lawn care approaches include:
- Adding Dutch Clover to your lawn, or even letting it take over the grass completely. It is green, rugged, and self-maintaining. (Note: Be prepared to mow down the small white flowers as they come up. This will prevent your dog from getting stung by bees that collect nectar from these flowers.)
- Using a robust species of grass, such as Bahia or Fescue, that is meant for your climate zone. Your garden supplier should be able to steer you towards the right one.
- Reducing the size of your lawn by increasing areas of dog-safe shrubs, flowers, and ornamental grasses.
- Embracing imperfection. Is having a lawn that’s not perfect such a terrible thing? Rest assured, your best friend isn’t judging you.
Focus on Pet-Safe Plants
Pet-safe plants and flowers aren’t maintenance free, but they will reduce any worry that your garden is a risk to your dog while adding welcome color and greenery. Explore plants that are easy-care, appropriate for your climate, and non-toxic to dogs. Some great options include Windmill Palms, Creeping Rosemary, Lavender, and Snapdragons.
Some of the most common garden plants that are harmful to dogs include:
- Aloe Vera
- Morning Glory
Visit the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) for a comprehensive list of plants that are toxic to dogs.
Pests—such as ticks, lice, and rodents—thrive in certain environments. If you remove their habitats from your garden and yard, they’ll find other places to set up house. Many bugs are drawn to leaf piles, dense underbrush, high grasses, and wood piles. Insects are also attracted to shady areas, such as under outdoor furniture or porches, or behind sheds. Keep grasses and shrubs trimmed so they don’t become overgrown, and routinely rake up and dispose of fallen leaves and garden debris.
Keep in mind, ticks and lice and other critters are resourceful and there’s no way to eradicate them completely from your yard. Your dog will still require preventative measures, such as flea and tick collars, to further minimize the risk of canine Lyme disease and flea infestations.
Fence It Off
If you simply must grow certain plants with known toxicity for dogs, or there’s a section of your garden you think requires pesticides to flourish as you’d like—put up a fence. Whether it’s a reading garden with a bench or a vegetable garden, make sure the fence can keep your dog out. This means high enough for dogs who love to jump, reinforced at the bottom for dogs who love to dig, and with openings too small for your dog to squeeze through.
Natural Isn’t Always Pet Safe
There are many natural and organic alternatives on the market for garden pest control and care, but not all of them are safe for dogs and pets. Cocoa mulch, for example, is an increasingly popular fertilizer that is toxic just as chocolate is toxic for dogs. It may not look appetizing to you, but the mulch is made from cocoa bean husks and has a sweet smell that can entice dogs to give it a taste.
Read Labels and Follow Instructions
Whether you use store-bought or homemade, or natural or chemical-based insecticides and fertilizers, read the labels and follow any instructions closely. Some products require that you keep your dog away from the treated area for a specified amount of time—until the product is sufficiently absorbed by the soil and diluted. Always keep pesticide products closed tightly and stored in a locked area your investigative dog can’t access.
Insecticide Poisoning in Dogs
Exposure to a toxic dose of insecticides is a medical emergency for your dog and requires an immediate trip to the vet or the nearest animal hospital.
Here are some common symptoms of insecticide poisoning in dogs:
- Instability standing or walking
A Compost Pile Caution
Compost piles are an excellent, environmentally friendly way to dispose of plant food waste and create a natural fertilizer for your lawn. But compost piles can be toxic to dogs if they are not properly maintained, enclosed, or when the wrong foods are tossed into them. Dairy, meat, and bread, for example, should never be discarded in the compost pile because they can grow molds that may contain mycotoxins that cause neurological symptoms in dogs, including seizures. Compost piles are also prime environments for the growth of wild mushrooms, some varieties of which are toxic to dogs.
When it comes to your garden and your dog, knowledge equals safety. Now that know what to add to your garden—and what to avoid altogether—you can step out of the back door with your dog and enjoy fresh air and fun close to home.