How you keep your pets and plants safe

Some common landscape plants may pose hazards to pets.

Your landscape is an extension of your home, to be enjoyed by you and your family. Our outdoor space provides a place for kids to play and to hold barbecues and other family get-togethers. If your family includes pets, your landscape will likely be used by them, too.

In some ways, pets will behave in your landscape much like young children. Although a pet is less likely to get hurt than a child, there are still some similar precautions you should take, such as watching out for poisonous plants.

Pets can also cause problems in the landscape, but loving owners usually forgive minor indiscretions.

So, there are two major issues: keeping your landscape from harming your pet, and keeping your pet from harming your landscape.

Hazards to petsimages

All of us likely grow plants in our landscapes that could be toxic to dogs or cats. The good news is that, despite the abundance and ready availability of these plants to pets, incidents of poisoning are not especially common.

Of all the calls to the ASPCA each year about poisoned pets, most concern human medications (50,000 calls), insecticides (particularly those applied to dogs and cats for flea control, 31,000 calls) and people food (such as chocolate, 15,000 calls). Rat poison, veterinary medications and poisonous plants each had about 8,000 calls. The plants involved were mostly house plants, not landscape plants.

Azaleas, which are popular in local landscapes, can be fatally toxic to dogs — and people, too. Now that they are in bloom, look around at how many azaleas there are in people’s yards. Obviously, it’s not common for dogs to eat and be poisoned by azaleas — although I do know of an incident involving a puppy left alone inside a house all day with a potted azalea, which did result in the dog’s death.

There is one plant, however, that dog owners should be keenly aware of: the sago palm. A cycad, Cycas revoluta is not actually related to palms. It is a gymnosperm related to conifers such as pine trees and bald cypresses and, as such, the reproductive structures are cones.

There are male sagos and female sagos, and it is the females that present the most dangerous situation to dogs. The females form large, dome-shaped cones on the top of the plant during the summer. The seeds mature in January and February and then drop to the ground. The seeds are covered with a fleshy red coat 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 there have been numerous fatalities over the years in our area. Seeds from female sagos should be gathered up and disposed of in January.

The ASPCA’s Web site provides a searchable list of plants that are especially toxic to animals, which can be narrowed to dogs, cats or horses: Lilies, for instance, are highly toxic to cats, but not to dogs or horses.

If you’re concerned, avoid placing possibly hazardous plants in your landscape. But I’m not sure how far I would go to radically change an existing landscape (such as ripping out all of the azaleas) to eliminate all potentially toxic plants.

More pet protocol

If you leave your dog outside unattended, make sure your fences are up to the job of keeping him in your yard. Avoid large gaps, as 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 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 until then will look unsightly. This can be reduced by training your pet to favor a designated spot, or, in the case of dogs, taking them for more frequent walks elsewhere.

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

If it’s necessary to discourage a pet from an area, repellents can help, but they must be reapplied fairly frequently over time to be effective. If a dog has been doing a lot of damage digging, fences, temporary or permanent, can keep him from getting into particular garden areas, such as your vegetable garden.

Cats generally won’t bother decorative ponds or aquatic features in a landscape (although I have seen one or two eyeing 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. Fence off the feature for existing pets, or, if getting a new dog, choose a breed that is not so drawn to the water.