When my Rhodesian Ridgeback Ketzel was a young dog, there wasn’t much that she saw or sniffed that didn’t wind up in her mouth. On our way out of the dog park one late fall afternoon, she suddenly started vomiting what looked like moth balls—something I have never had in my home. I rushed her to the emergency vet, described what I’d seen land on the ground, and wracked my brain trying to think of what she may have eaten.
Then in my mind’s eye I saw it—my beautiful camellia bush that sits in a large pot in a corner on my patio. In November, it was dripping with buds—white buds. Ketzel must have scarfed them down during the day before we went to the park. Sure enough, when we got home, I saw the bush had been stripped naked. Fortunately, research showed they weren’t toxic, but it was a pricey conclusion to a long afternoon.
Anita Sly, Governor Animal Clinic’s senior registered vet tech, knows simply following a plant list is not a cut-and-dried solution. Over the years, she’s found that many people don’t even understand the implications of toxicity. Sly pointed out that toxic may not always mean fatal, but it can lead to damage—including neurological damage, liver, heart or kidney failure.
The source of toxicity can be confounding for a well-intentioned gardener. “Some plants are entirely toxic but for others it may be the flower or the leaves,” she pointed out. “You also have to remember that some medications are derived from plants, like foxglove (digitalis) or poppies (pain relief medications). You wouldn’t just eat medication, but we make available in our garden the plants they come from. We also think in terms of a single plant type as being toxic, but not others in that species. So we wouldn’t have oleanders in our garden, but we don’t realize that thevetia peruviana and thevetia thevetioides are in that species and are also poisonous. And there are trees that can cause problems. Macadamia trees aren’t a problem themselves, but the nuts are toxic. So are the seeds that drop from sago palms.”
Ross also points out, like people, any pet can have a bad reaction to a plant, even one that’s not on a toxic list. “I had a client that had a lot of pencil cactus, and the dog chasing rabbits into the cactus was having reactions in its eyes,” he recalled. “The client finally had to remove the cactus because they couldn’t stop the bunnies.”
Finally, there’s pest control. Sly said when it comes to insecticides you spray on plants, you have to be very careful about reading labels. She said pyrethrinis is fine, but permethrins are toxic—more to cats than dogs. Her suggestion? Use diatomaceous earth or boric acid. If you’re dealing with rodents, don’t use loose pellets. They’re anticoagulants, and your pet can bleed out if they ingest them.
So, what can you do? Paige Hailey of Urban Plantations suggests some preliminary steps. Spend time in your yard with your pet to see what they go for. What are their habits so you can make informed planting choices?
Also address your dog or cat’s specific issues, especially if they come to you as rescues. Trainer Alexandra Gant of Behave LLC explained that when dogs are on their own on the streets, they learn to eat anything for survival. Starving can cause food anxiety that doesn’t automatically go away when they’re finally in a good home, so address the root of the problem.
And, for any dog, address issues like boredom, diet imbalance, and your own reactions. “Owners, particularly with puppies, can turn plant eating or digging into a game by racing around and shouting at the dog,” she said. “Don’t reward bad behavior; instead be calm when you catch them, quietly take the plant away, and give them something in return, like a toy that’s safe.”
Bring your mobile device, i.e., cell phone, with you when shopping for plants and consult the ASPCA list to avoid bringing home anything dangerous. Consult with nursery experts and review a proposed plant list with your landscaper that can be double checked against a toxic plant list.
If you want to keep pets away from a plant or tree that you don’t want to take out, fence it, or wall and groom the tree behind the fence. Religiously rake up after palms that drop seeds.
For dogs or cats who get into edibles like tomatoes or beans, build raised beds if you have the space. It creates an automatic barrier and also makes it easier to fence off the vegetables if necessary.
When fertilizing, keep your animals out of the yard for the rest of the afternoon to let the nutrients off-gas and lose some of their deliciousness. Cultivate the area well and cover it with mulch to mask the smell.
If you have a dog who chews on dripline irrigation, enclose the area with chicken wire or deer fences.
Encourage cats to hang out in a separate space in the garden by planting catnip or cat grass as an attractant.
To keep snakes out of the yard, bury ½ inch mesh into the ground and a good foot and a half above the ground and secure it to the regular fence. Sly said you can also vaccinate dogs against rattlesnake venom, but it’s not a cure all.
If you have the space and have an incorrigible dog or if you’re an incorrigible gardener, build a dog run that can be the dog’s safe space.