Back when my Rhodesian Ridgeback Ketzel was a young dog there wasn’t much that she saw or sniffed that didn’t wind up in her mouth. On our way out of the dog park one late fall afternoon she suddenly started vomiting what looked like moth balls—something I have never had in my home. I rushed her to the emergency vet, described what I’d seen land on the ground, and wracked my brain trying to think of what she may have eaten. And then in my mind’s eye I saw it—my beautiful camellia bush that sits in a large pot in a corner on my patio. In November it was dripping with buds—white buds. Ketzel must have scarfed them down during the day before we went to the park. Sure enough, when we got home, I saw the bush had been stripped naked. Fortunately, research showed they weren’t toxic. But it was a pricey conclusion to a long afternoon.

Azaleas–a no no for pets. They’re now on the front porch where the dogs and cat can’t nibble on them.

Many of our members are pet owners and pet owners with gardens face a difficult balancing act. We want an outdoor space that reflects our aesthetic but we want it to be safe for our animals. Often we move in to a stunning mature landscape and bring in a dog or cat, only to discover that the colorful lilies or azaleas or foxgloves that make us smile when they’re blooming are also enticing to our pets—and horribly toxic, perhaps even deadly, when chewed on. Or the space is attacked by pests that we have to eradicate.

Most pet owners are aware of various lists of outdoor plants to avoid. “The ASPCA has a comprehensive list of toxic and non-toxic plants on its website, divided by dogs, cats, and horses,” noted David Ross, the senior manager of Walter Andersen Nursery’s Poway store in San Diego County. For dogs, this includes azaleas, bay laurels, clivia lily, and even geraniums, which can cause vomiting, anorexia, depression, and dermatitis.

But Anita Sly, a registered vet tech in San Diego, knows simply following a plant list is not a cut-and-dried solution. Over the years she’s found that many people don’t even understand the implications of toxicity. Sly pointed out that toxic may not always mean fatal, but it can lead to damage—including neurological damage or liver, heart, or kidney failure. And the source of toxicity can be confounding for a well-intentioned gardener.

“Some plants are entirely toxic but for others it may be the flower or the leaves,” she pointed out. “You also have to remember that some medications are derived from plants, like digitalis or poppies. You wouldn’t just eat medication but we make available in our garden the plants they come from. We also think in terms of a single plant type as being toxic, but not others in that species. So we wouldn’t have oleanders in our garden, but we don’t realize that thevetia peruviana and thevetia thevetioides are in that species and are also poisonous. And there are trees that can cause problems. Macadamia trees aren’t a problem themselves, but the nuts are toxic. So are the seeds that drop from sago palms.”

And, Ross pointed out, like people, any pet can have a bad reaction to a plant, even one that’s not on a toxic list.

“I had a client that had a lot of pencil cactus and the dog, chasing rabbits into the cactus, was having reactions in its eyes,” he recalled. “The client finally had to remove the cactus because they couldn’t stop the bunnies.”

Finally, there’s pest control. Sly said when it comes to insecticides you spray on plants you have to be very careful about reading labels. Pyrethrinis, she said is fine, but permethrins are toxic—more to cats than dogs. Her suggestion? Use diatomaceous earth or boric acid. If you’re dealing with rodents, don’t use loose pellets. They’re anticoagulents and your pet can bleed out if they ingest them.

So, what can you do? Paige Hailey of Urban Plantations, a San Diego landscaping company, suggests some preliminary steps. Spend time in your yard with your pet to see what they go for. What are their habits so you can make informed planting choices?

 

Also address your dog or cat’s specific issues, especially if they come to you as rescues. Trainer Alexandra Gant of Behave LLC in San Diego explained that when dogs are on their own on the streets, they learn to eat anything for survival and that starving can cause food anxiety that doesn’t automatically go away when they’re finally in a good home. So address the root of the problem. And for any dog, address issues like boredom, diet imbalance, and your own reactions.

“Owners, particularly with puppies, can turn plant eating or digging into a game by racing around and shouting at the dog,” she said. “Don’t reward bad behavior; instead be calm when you catch them, quietly take the plant away, and give them something in return, like a toy, that’s safe.”

These experts had additional tips:

  • Bring your mobile computer, i.e. cell phone, with you when shopping for plants and consult the ASPCA list to avoid bringing home anything dangerous. Consult the experts who work at nurseries. Review a proposed plant list with your landscaper and double check it against a toxic plant list.
  • If you want to keep pets away from a plant or tree that you just don’t want to take out, fence it or wall and groom the tree behind the fence. With palms that drop seeds, religiously rake them.
  • For dogs or cats who get into edibles like tomatoes or beans, build raised beds if you have the space. It creates an automatic barrier and also makes it easier to fence off the vegetables if necessary.
  • When fertilizing, keep your animals out of the yard for the rest of the afternoon to let the nutrients off gas and lose some of their deliciousness. Cultivate it well and cover with mulch to mask the smell.
  • If you have a dog who chews on dripline irrigation, enclose the area with chicken wire or deer fences.
  • Encourage cats to hang out in a separate space in the garden by planting catnip or cat grass as an attractant.
  • To keep snakes out of the yard, bury 1/2-inch mesh into the ground and a good foot and a half above the ground and secure it to the regular fence. Sly said you can also vaccinate dogs against rattlesnake venom, but it’s not a cure all.
  • Finally, if you have the space and have an incorrigible dog or you’re an incorrigible gardener, build a dog run that can be the dog’s safe space.

Do you have pets who spend time in the garden? What issues have you had to address?

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