Keeping your lawn and garden safe for pets

How can you be sure your pet is safe in your garden or on your lawn? By avoiding certain plants and pest-control products, you can keep these outdoor areas friendlier for Fido, and less dangerous for Kitty too.

Everything from toxic plants to lawn chemicals and pesticides can be potentially harmful and even deadly to our furry friends. Fortunately, there are natural ways to take care of lawns and gardens while safeguarding pets.

Know your pest controls

Running through the yard and rolling in the grass is fun for your pets, but if the lawn has been chemically treated, they may be breathing in those fumes as well as coating their paws and fur in toxic residue. Pets will then proceed to track those harmful chemicals into the home, as well as lick those toxins off their paws and legs.

If that grass had treatments for weed-control, including treatments of Roundup, pets can suffer exposure to glyphosate. Glyphosate is the main ingredient found in Roundup and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) classifies it as a possible carcinogen. If a dog consumes Roundup, they may develop diarrhea, vomiting, cardiac arrest or anorexia. Take your dog to the veterinarian as soon as possible if they develop any of these types of symptoms.

Not only is glyphosate harmful to pets, it’s been linked to cancers in humans as well. However, glyphosate levels in animals can be much higher (up to 50 times higher) than in humans. Pets are more susceptible to toxins because they are lower to the ground and have unprotected paws.

A six-year study conducted by Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine found that lymphoma in animals is directly correlated with some lawn care chemicals, specifically products that included 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (also known as 2,4-D) used to kill off clovers and dandelions. Another study by the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at Purdue University concluded certain garden and lawn chemicals (including 2,4-D) are linked to canine bladder cancer.

Pet-safe weed killers and pesticides

When you’re considering pet-safe weed killers and pesticides, be sure to take the time to look at the labels on the bottle. The term “chemical-free” is a misnomer; there is no such thing as a chemical-free product.

Everything is a chemical. What you want to avoid are toxic compounds. Many herbicides and pesticides are loaded with toxic chemicals. Thankfully, you have a number of approaches from which to choose when ridding your yard from unwanted visitors. The key is to solve the problem before the pest population is at an epidemic level.

Here are some pet-safe tips:

Consider using products made from all-natural ingredients. For instance, rather than using a standard name-brand product which might likely contain harmful toxins, try deploying things like corn gluten meal, a natural weed killer which doubles as a fertilizer. For pest control, try diatomaceous earth and boric acid.

Take the IPM approach. The most effective strategy for controlling pests without harming your loved ones? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, you should combine methods in an approach known as Integrated Pest Management (IPM). In this approach, you first identify the cause of a specific problem in your yard and then use the least toxic method to bring the problem to an acceptable level.

Avoid using broad-spectrum insecticides. They're not selective, meaning they kill pests while also killing beneficial insects. Instead, choose targeted products, which are designed to harm only specific pests. The first and most critical step is to first identify the pests. Once you know what you have, it's easier to control.

Declare biological warfare. Let the good guys beat up the bad guys. Using living organisms to control other living organisms is one of the least toxic approaches to pest control and the safest for your pets. Ladybugs, beneficial nematodes and earthworms (all found at garden supply stores) attack soil-borne insect pests with no harmful effects on plants, animals or humans. Wasps, dragonflies and spiders are also all-natural predators. Learn to recognize the insects in your garden that help manage pests and let them continue their good work!
Get physical. Start with low-impact techniques. Always try the safest alternatives first, such as removing slugs and other pests by hand, weeding, burning, and high-pressure sprays of water to control aphids. To control weeds, just putting down a tarp can go a long way. Floating row covers (a spun polyester fabric available at most garden supply stores) are another great choice if you are looking for physical barriers. The covers are lightweight, opaque blankets that drape over the garden bed. Sunlight and water can still reach the plants, but insects and birds cannot get underneath.

If pesticide use does become necessary, choose products that are the least harmful to people, pets and wildlife. These products include insecticidal soap and dormant oils sprays that have little or no residual effect, and confine treatments to just the plants being damaged. Use sprays of Bacillus thuringiensis (also known as BT), a naturally occurring soil bacterium that kills pests (such as mosquito larvae) but is safe for pets, beneficial insects and wildlife.

Resort to pesticides only when effective alternatives are not available and use them only when pests are present, instead of as a preventative measure. Also, confine treatments to just the plants being damaged.

Staying safe with fertilizer, compost and plants

Fertilize with caution. Fertilizers are wonderful for your lawn and your garden, but they can also be extremely appealing to your dog. Each year, the Animal Poison Control Center (APCC) gets thousands of calls from pet owners whose dogs ingested fertilizers. Keep your pets off the lawn and out of the garden until they have been watered in, or it has rained and the fertilizer has since dried.

Be careful with compost. Compost provides organic matter that will keep your garden in tip-top shape, but a compost pile can also be a buffet for your pet. Moldy, decaying plant material can contain tremorgenic mycotoxins, which can cause tremors and seizures in pets. Additionally, compost piles can contain other toxic food leftovers, such as grapes and onions. Be sure to keep your compost away from curious noses.

Know your toxic plants. Many plants can be harmful to pets if ingested, so it's a good idea to research the flowers, trees and weeds that grow in your yard. Foxglove, for example, is one of several cardiotoxic plants – those that can affect the heart. Also, rhubarb leaves and certain species of lily can cause kidney failure, and some species of mushrooms can result in liver failure. Monkshood is a beautiful flowering plant in Alaska, but every part of it contains a deadly toxin that could be fatal to our furry friends. (In fact, it was historically used to kill predator animals in the 18th century.) For a list of plants that have been reported to have systemic and gastrointestinal effects on animals, visit aspca.org/toxicplants.

If you suspect your pet may have ingested a potentially toxic substance, call the APCC at (888) 426-4435 or contact your local veterinarian as soon as possible.

Sources and for more information: Integrated Pest Management: epa.gov/safepestcontrol/integrated-pest-management-ipm-principles • UAF Cooperative Extension Service: alaska.edu/uaf/ces • American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: aspca.org • Alaska Mill and Feed: alaskamillandfeed.com • Animal Poison Control Center: aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control