You're eager to transform your yard from a bare patch of grass into a lush landscape where Fido can play fetch and Whiskers can smell the catnip. But before you buy flats of flowers and start a compost pile, learn how the choices you make can pose risks to your pets.
In 2013 the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center fielded 18,000 calls about possible poisonings from toxic plants, compost, and yard and garden chemicals.
Consider these tips before you get started planting.
Avoid poisonous plants. Several popular plants are toxic to dogs and cats. Begonias, clematis, and azaleas may trigger symptoms ranging from vomiting and diarrhea to death in dogs. For cats, eating lilies can be fatal, according to
Tina Wismer, DVM, a veterinarian, master gardener, and medical director of the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center.
"Your new puppy is not the same as your old dog and may chew on the plants in your backyard," Wismer says.
Before you go to the garden center, check the list of poisonous plants on the ASPCA's web site, and avoid species that could cause health problems. If any plants already in your garden are on the list, consider removing them.
Cover the compost pile. The scent of rotting produce might tempt your pup to turn the compost pile into a canine buffet. While it's safe to feed your dog some fresh fruits and vegetables, once produce hits the compost pile, mold and fungus can turn an unauthorized nosh into a trip to the vet.
"Some molds can cause tremors and seizures if they're ingested," Wismer says. And certain compostable foods, including grapes and onions, are toxic to dogs even before mold forms.
Look for compost bins with secure latches, or install a fence around the compost pile to limit your pets' access. Wismer also suggests you scan your yard and pick any mushrooms (which can be toxic), as well as fruit and nuts that drop from trees (which will mold if left untouched). Add them to the compost pile before your pet finds them.
Read labels. Many common fertilizers and insecticides pose risks. "As a general rule, most fertilizers are only going to cause vomiting and diarrhea if ingested," Wismer says. "Insecticides are much more deadly and can cause tremors and seizures.”
Before applying chemicals, read the labels and follow the recommendations. Some manufacturers advise you keep pets off the grass or out of the garden for 24 to 48 hours after use.
Even organic options can pose a risk. Chicken-based manure and fertilizers, for example, may carry salmonella. Other types of manure, including cattle and sheep manure, contain ammonia. Both are toxic to pets.
Minimize flea and tick risks. Your garden could be a haven for these pests. Remove leaf litter, tall grass, and brush where fleas and ticks thrive (these are also prime habitats for poisonous snakes like copperheads, which can bite unsuspecting pets roaming in the yard). You should also clean up spilled birdseed, which attracts mice and squirrels that carry the blood-sucking insects.
Keep the grass mowed, and don't over-water your lawn, to discourage fleas and ticks from turning your yard into their home. "A sunny and dry environment can help reduce the tick population," Wismer says.
Also, get rid of standing water (such as in birdbaths) to help keep mosquitoes in check. These bugs can spread heartworm disease, which can be fatal to dogs and cats.
Rethink mulch, too. If you use cocoa mulch in the garden, your pets may be at risk. The sweet-smelling mulch is made from the hulls of cocoa beans and contains the stimulants in chocolate that are toxic to dogs. Wismer advises gravel, wood chips, pine needles, or rubber as pet-safe mulch alternatives.
Get smart. Download the ASPCA mobile app from aspca.org. It gives pet owners immediate access to poison control information, including details and photos of toxic plants, side effects, and what to do if your pet ingests something toxic. The app also provides contact details for the poison control hotline, staffed by veterinarians and toxicologists who are available 24/7 for emergencies.
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