Fertilizing garden

Spring, summer and fall are times when most homeowners lavish lots of TLC on their lawns and gardens with herbicides, mulches and fertilizers. It’s also when lots of friendly and not-so-friendly pests are buzzing about, necessitating the use of pesticides. But are these products really as safe for use around our animals as landscapers and exterminators say they are? Should you take any extra precautions? Let’s take a look at what you need to know.


Dogs just love to eat fertilizers, especially the organic ones. Many organic fertilizers contain bone meal, blood meal, poultry feathers, etc. (If you are a dog, what could be better!). Fortunately, fertilizers generally have a low degree of toxicity although they can cause vomiting and diarrhea in some pets. If the signs are more than mild, please contact your veterinarian.


These products are used to kill weeds or to kill grass growing in inappropriate places (such as the driveway or sidewalk). Herbicides can be used safely around pets. The correct dilution of liquid products is important for your lawn and for your pets. Be sure to dilute any puddles on the driveway or sidewalk with water. If using a granular product, make sure to follow the recommended application rate and sweep up any spills. After the granules have been “watered in” and the lawn is dry, it is safe for pets to be back in the yard. The granules themselves will not disappear, but the active ingredient will have been washed out of the granules and into the dirt. If your pet ingests an herbicide, drooling and vomiting are common signs. Please contact your veterinarian if these signs are more than mild.


Always read and follow label directions closely. Keep pets off the lawn and out of the yard until any products that have been applied are dry (see herbicide recommendations above), and always dilute any spilled products. If an exterminator has applied the product, be sure to carefully follow any instructions you have been given, such as leaving pets in for a specific period of time or waiting until a product has visibly dried. Insecticides if ingested can cause drooling, vomiting, diarrhea or muscle tremors. If you think your pet could have ingested or come in contact with any insecticides, please call your veterinarian immediately.

Snail bait 

There are two common types of snail/slug bait. Metaldehyde is very dangerous to use around pets. Dogs enjoy the taste and will eat all of it that they can get. Metaldehyde can cause vomiting, muscle tremors, seizures and death. Please see your veterinarian immediately if your pet ingests methaldehyde. The second type of snail/slug bait is iron-based and can cause vomiting and diarrhea, sometimes tinged with blood.


Most mulch products are fairly innocuous to dogs, but there are two concerns in particular to keep in mind. Cocoa mulch has become popular and can be a problem if a dog ingests it. They are often attracted to its sweet smell. Composed of cocoa bean hulls, the product contains methylxanthines—the same substance found in chocolate. Dogs who consume it can display the same signs as chocolate poisoning, including vomiting, diarrhea and, in severe cases, muscle tremors and neurologic signs. (Keep in mind there are other less-toxic mulch alternatives available that are safer to use with pets.) Another concern with almost any kind of mulch product, however, is mushrooms. These fungi grow particularly well in certain kinds of mulch and some of them can be poisonous to pets. If you see mushrooms starting to grow in your mulch, rake the material over frequently in order to uproot any sprouts.  


Compost piles, while good for the environment, can harm our pets. Compost piles or even fallen rotting fruits or nuts from trees can grow mold. These molds can produce compounds that, if ingested, can cause tremors and seizures in our pets. Make sure your pets don’t have access to the compost pile, and pick up all dropped fruit and nuts from the yard. Again, if you suspect your pet has consumed something he shouldn’t have, contact your veterinarian.

Some Parting Advice

In addition to the cautions above, following these simple rules will also help protect your pets during the growing season:

1.  Make sure your lawn service or exterminator knows that you have animals. Ask them to discuss with you any products that will be used and have them outline any safety recommendations you may need to follow.

2.  Get a schedule so that your pets are not in the yard when they arrive and can be kept out until the area is safe again.

3.  Obtain a legible receipt listing the products that they used.

4.  If you are a “do-it-yourselfer,” read and follow label directions exactly.

5.  Always store bags and bottles for any products used out of the reach of pets.

6.  Always empty and change the water in any outdoor water bowls or bird baths after any products have been applied.

For more information on garden safety check out the ASPCA Guide to Pet-Safe Gardening.

Dr. Tina Wismer is the medical director of the ASPCA Poison Control Center in Urbana, Illinois and a member of the vetstreet.com medical board.

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