Take care mixing pets and plants

Photo by Kathie Rowell.

Photo by Kathie Rowell.

By Dan Gill, LSU AgCenter horticulturist

Your landscape is there to be enjoyed by you and your family. It’s the setting for your home and provides a space for outdoor activities. Lawn areas offer a wonderful place for kids to play, and family get-togethers and parties take place on decks and patios. If your family includes pets, your landscape will likely be used by them as well.

In some ways, having pets in your landscape is like having young children. Although pets are less likely than a young child to get hurt in a landscape, you must still take some similar precautions, such as watching out for poisonous plants. Pets can also cause problems in the landscape, but pet owners who love their pets generally manage to tolerate or forgive minor indiscretions.

Pets still raise two major issues – keeping your landscape from harming your pet and keeping your pet from harming your landscape.

Hazards

All of us likely grow plants in our landscapes that could be toxic to dogs or cats. The good news is, despite the abundance and ready availability of these plants to pets, incidents of plant poisoning are not especially common. In the number of poisoned pet contacts reported to the ASPCA, plants ranked after human medications, insecticides (particularly those applied to dogs and cats for flea control) and people food (like chocolate). Rat poison, veterinarian medications and poisonous plants all had similar numbers of calls. The plants involved were mostly indoor plants, not outside. The ASPCA website has an excellent list of plants poisonous to cats and dogs.

Azaleas, for instance, can be fatally toxic to dogs – and people, too. As they bloom this spring, look around at how many azaleas are in people’s landscapes. Obviously, dogs don’t typically eat azaleas and get poisoned by them. I was made aware of an incident involving a puppy left alone inside a house all day with a potted azalea that resulted in the puppy’s death.

There is one plant, however, that dog owners should be very aware of. The cycad we call sago palm (Cycas revoluta) is not actually related to palms. It is a gymnosperm related to conifers like pine trees and bald cypresses. As such, the reproductive structures are cones.

Sagos come in male and female, and the females present the more dangerous situation. The females form large, dome-shaped cones on top of the plant during summer. The seeds mature in January and February and drop to the ground sometime thereafter. The seeds are covered with a fleshy red coating that dogs must find tasty, because they will eat them.

Although all parts of the sago are toxic, the seeds are highly toxic to dogs, and I’ve heard of numerous fatalities over the years. Seeds from female sagos should be gathered up and disposed of as soon as you see them in late winter or early spring.

Learn which plants are especially toxic to animals – lilies, for instance, are highly toxic to cats – and avoid planting them in your landscape. But I’m not sure how far I would go to radically change an existing landscape – like rip out all of the azaleas – to eliminate all potentially toxic plants.

Other tips

If you leave your dog outside unattended, make sure your fences are up to the job of keeping him inside your yard. Avoid large gaps because curious dogs will generally try to work their way through and get out. If you don’t want to enclose the whole yard, consider a fenced dog run.

Dogs and cats will both use the yard when they relieve themselves, and this can create problems. Larger dog breeds may produce enough urine in one spot to kill the grass. These dead spots will usually fill in with new grass eventually but still look unsightly in the meantime. This can be reduced by flushing the area where dogs urinate with water right after they finish.

Cats will use garden beds as litter boxes. They are especially attracted to freshly turned, dry soil. Never leave a turned bed bare. If you aren’t ready to plant, cover it with a thick layer of mulch, tarp or plastic if cats are a problem. Cats seem to be less likely to use beds mulched with pine straw compared with chopped or shredded mulches like bark and cypress mulch.

It may sometimes be necessary to discourage a pet from an area. Repellents will help with this but must be reapplied fairly frequently over time to be effective. Fences, temporary or permanent, may be necessary to keep dogs from getting into garden areas, such as your vegetable garden, if they have been doing a lot of damage by digging.

Cats generally won’t bother decorative ponds or aquatic features in a landscape, although I have seen one or two eying the fish. But dogs can be a major nuisance. Some breeds are worse than others about getting into the water – labs are especially fond of swimming – so if you are thinking of getting a dog, choose a breed that isn’t so drawn to the water or fence off the feature for existing pets.

The Internet has lots of excellent information on this topic. Simply do an Internet search using “pet-friendly gardening” and you’ll find many links to explore.

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