Q: Our dog and cat like to keep us company when we’re tending backyard vegetables and flowers. Are there garden-care hazards that could harm them?
A: Many of us like to raise homegrown veggies and pretty flowers, and keep our lawns looking green, healthy and weed-free. Unfortunately, gardens and lawns, and the products we use to care for them, may pose threats to our pets. Here are a few to keep in mind:
Cocoa bean mulch
Some gardeners prefer this type because it more effectively retains moisture and insulates against cold and heat. It also has sharper edges than other mulch, which might deter animals tempted to graze on whatever you're growing. But because it's made from byproducts of chocolate production — discarded hulls or shells — it gives off a scent dogs may find irresistible.
When dogs eat this mulch, they're ingesting unknown amounts of theobromine and caffeine, both of which are toxic to canines. Depending on toxin concentration, eating cocoa bean mulch may cause vomiting, diarrhea, hyperactivity, abnormal heart rhythm, seizures and even death. If you use this mulch, keep dogs away from it and always supervise pets' outdoor activities. Or use a different type of mulch.
Fertilizers containing blood meal, bone meal, feather meal and iron may be especially appealing and hazardous to dogs. Ingesting large amounts of meal products can cause gastrointestinal obstruction and severe pancreatitis; those containing iron may result in iron poisoning. Know what's in fertilizers before using them.
Insecticides and herbicides
Baits, sprays and granules may help keep lawns and gardens healthy, but their ingredients could be hazardous and potentially fatal to pets and wild animals. Among the most dangerous are slug and snail baits with metaldehyde; fly bait with methomyl; systemic insecticides with the ingredients disyston or disulfoton; mole or gopher bait with zinc phosphide; and most forms of rat poison. Insecticides containing organophosphates (often found in systemic products for roses) can be life-threatening, even in small amounts. Overall, minimize their use, look for safer and more natural options, and read manufacturers' labels carefully for tips on keeping pesticides stored safely away from curious animals and children.
Many gardeners love using compost. It recycles waste and nourishes growing plants but can be toxic to pets and wildlife. As organic materials decompose, it's common for molds to grow. Moldy food or compost consumed by an animal can result in physical distress in as little as 30 minutes. Symptoms include agitation, panting, drooling, vomiting, tremors and seizures. Prompt veterinary treatment usually results in a good prognosis, but if you compost, your best bet is to securely fence it to keep animals away.
When it comes to popular plants and flowers, pretty and poisonous are not mutually exclusive. Among the plants known to be toxic to dogs or cats are sago palm, rhododendron, azalea, lily of the valley, oleander, rosebay, foxglove and kalanchoe. You can find much more information on potentially toxic plants on the websites for the Humane Society (humanesociety.org) and ASPCA (aspca.org).
There's a great iPhone app offered by the Pet Poison Helpline, with an extensive database of plants, chemicals, foods and drugs that are poisonous to pets. This app is always available, with or without Internet access or cellphone service. It includes full-color photos for identifying poisonous plants and an index feature that allows users to search for toxins, cross-referencing them by common and scientific terms. For emergencies, there's also a direct dial feature to the Pet Poison Helpline. At 99 cents, the Pet Poison Help app is a bargain and is available from iTunes.
If you ever suspect a pet has ingested something harmful, immediately call your veterinarian or the Pet Poison Helpline at 1-800-213-6680. The Pet Poison Helpline charges $39 per call, including unlimited follow-up consultations — a small price to pay if it saves your pet's life.