Planning a Pet Safe Garden

Six tips to keep your four-legged family members safe in the garden
Natalie Andrewson


You’re eager to transform your yard into a blooming paradise with plenty of space for Fido to play fetch. Before you buy flats of flowers and start a compost pile, consider how the choices you make may impact your pets. In 2012, the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center received more than 13,000 calls about potential poisoning from yard and garden products and toxic plants. To avoid an unexpected trip for emergency veterinary care, follow these tips for planning a pet-safe garden. 

Steer clear of poisonous plants
Popular plants like 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, medical director of the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center and master gardener. Before you go to the garden center, check the list of poisonous plants on the ASPCA’s website,

Minimize flea and tick risks 
You may  unwittingly be providing food and shelter for ticks. “Keeping a sunny and dry environment can help reduce the tick population in the backyard,” Wismer says. Remove leaf litter, tall grass, and brush where fleas and ticks thrive (these are also prime habitats for poisonous snakes like copperheads). You should also clean up spilled birdseed; even though birds will eat the insects, spilled feed attracts mice and squirrels that carry the blood-sucking insects.

Be careful with compost 
The scent of rotting produce might tempt your pup to treat the compost pile like a K9 buffet. Some compostable foods like grapes and onions are toxic to dogs. In the compost bin, fruits and vegetables grow mold and fungus that can turn an unauthorized nosh into a trip to the vet. “Look for models that latch securely or install a fence around the compost pile to limit access,” advises Thomas Barthel, author of Dogscaping: Creating the Perfect Backyard and Garden for You and Your Dog (i5 Press, 2010).

Read labels
Many common fertilizers and insecticides pose potential dangers to pets.

“You need to read the labels and obey the recommendations for using chemicals on your lawn and garden,” Barthel says. Even organic options can pose a risk. Barthel notes that chicken-based fertilizers are high in salmonella and manure contains ammonia; both are toxic to pets.

Rethink mulch
If you’re using 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 methylxanthines, the stimulants in chocolate that are toxic to dogs. Pine straw is popular in Southern gardens because it helps retain moisture but a high-moisture environment attracts fleas and ticks. Wismer advises gravel, wood chips, or rubber as pet-safe alternatives for mulching the garden.

Enhance the environment
During the dog days of summer, make sure your pet has access to shade and fresh water while he’s outside. Fill a kiddie pool with water or turn on the sprinkler to give your pet an entertaining option to cool off. “When your pets are outside, always monitor them for excessive panting, lethargy, pacing, and other signs of dehydration and heat exhaustion,” Barthel notes.