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6 Tips for Planting a Pet-Safe Garden

Watch out for poisonous plants, moldy compost, fertilizers and more

Smiling woman playing with her golden retriever on front yard

valentinrussanov/Getty Images

En español | The yard is the perfect place to let a pet explore, lounge and get some exercise. But poisonous plants, fertilizers and pesticides can all be hazards to furry family members.

Pet owners who share their homes (and yards) with dachshunds that dig, corgis that chew, Dobermans that drink from the bird bath and Labrador retrievers that treat the compost like a buffet (in addition to adventurous cats and maybe even some chickens) often go to great lengths to create pet-friendly yards where their four-legged friends can hang out without getting sick.

For example, Brette Sember, 52, dug out the crab apple tree growing in her Clarence, New York, backyard after her dog, Lance, got sick from eating fallen fruit. Tony Sacco, 53, eschews toxic fertilizers on his Seattle lawn and looks for pet-safe products for use in his backyard water feature to ensure that his cat, Sushi, and the neighborhood cats that visit the yard won't get sick if they drink the water. And Marcia Layton Turner, 55, of Rochester, New York, refuses to spray the weeds in her yard with pesticides to protect her granddogs, Harper and Shay, who often play in the grass.

In 2020, the ASPCA Poison Control Center received 370,500 calls from pet owners about possible toxic exposures: Plants, rodent poisons, insecticides and miscellaneous “garden products” topped the list of pet toxins.

You can keep your pet safe from garden dangers by following these tips for a pet-friendly landscape.

1. Pull poisonous plants

Some common landscape plants, including azaleas, rhododendrons, foxglove and lilies, are toxic to pets if ingested, notes Tina Wismer, a veterinarian and the senior director of the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center.

Pets that eat poisonous plants can have symptoms ranging from vomiting, diarrhea and excess salivation to coma, cardiovascular collapse and death. Use the ASPCA's list of toxic plants to identify (and remove) troublesome species from the landscape, and consult the list before heading to the garden center.

 Brette Sember with her dog

Courtesy Brette Sember

Brette Sember with her dog Lance.

2. Rethink garden sprays

Whether you're applying fertilizer for a lush green lawn or blasting the insects eating your favorite plants, it's important to consider how those products may affect your pets.

"Unfortunately, fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides can be dangerous to cats and dogs,” says Michelle Lugones, a veterinarian at Best Friends Animal Society in New York. “The safest way to protect dogs and cats is to not use these products [and], if that isn't possible, prevent them having access to where you use or store these chemicals."

Even if your pets don't eat fertilizers, rolling in the grass after application or licking their paws after walking across the lawn could cause health issues, including skin burns and irritation, Lugones notes.

3. Minimize flea and tick risks

You worked hard to make your yard a haven for wildlife; bluebirds flock to the bird bath and snakes take shelter in the tall grasses. But fleas and ticks are hiding in those spots, too.

Tony Sacco with his cat Sushi

Courtesy Tony Sacco

Tony Sacco with his cat Sushi

"You can also make your outdoor space less welcoming to these insects by keeping the grass mowed, raking leaves, placing 3-foot-wide areas of gravel between your yard and any wooded areas … and keeping any woodpiles neatly stacked and dry,” Lugones says.

It's also essential to keep your pet on monthly flea and tick preventives to reduce the risks of heartworm disease, Lyme disease or itchy flea infestations if insects do sneak into the yard, she adds.

4. Cover the compost

Tossing about-to-spoil produce and last night's leftovers into the compost bin may lead your dog to think you're simply refilling the backyard buffet. Even foods like apples and carrots that are safe for your pet to eat fresh should be off-limits once they hit the compost heap.

"Compost, though good for our gardens, may contain molds that could cause severe illness in our pets,” Wismer says.

To keep an unauthorized nosh from turning into an emergency trip to the vet, choose a compost bin with a tamper-proof cover and, if possible, keep it in an area of the yard that's inaccessible to pets.

5. Be cautious with mulch

Dogs may not be able to resist the smell of cocoa bean mulch. This recycled product, made from the hulls of cocoa beans, contains theobromines, the ingredients in chocolate that are toxic to dogs.

Wismer notes that consuming the sweet-smelling mulch could lead to rapid heart rate, tremors and seizures — and that, if your dog eats a lot of cocoa bean mulch, it can be fatal. So if you can, choose from other mulch options.

6. Consider other dangers

Other potential hazards include everything from unattended hedge trimmers to swimming pools. Lugones suggests keeping lawn tools and chemicals stored, pools covered (or in separate fenced areas) and gates latched.

"It's always best to monitor your pet when they are outdoors,” she adds.

Remember, a shady spot to rest and access to fresh, cool water are also key for your four-legged friends.

With a little extra effort, your yard can be an outdoor oasis for you and your pet.

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Jodi Helmer is a contributing writer who covers gardening, health and the environment. She has also written for Scientific American, National Geographic Traveler and NPR.

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