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Pet-Friendly Backyard Landscaping

Household pets love to nibble on plants, but certain foliage can be dangerous. Here’s how to create a safe yard for your clients’ four-legged friends. 

If you’re working with clients who loves their pets as much as their yard, it’s important to customize landscaping decisions to ensure you keep the garden — and the pet — safe and sound.

The first and most important element of pet-friendly backyard landscaping to keep in mind is plant selection, as many seemingly harmless plants can be toxic to both pets and children. The ASPCA is an excellent resource for finding out which plants should be on your watch list and provides an exhaustive listing on their website of which plants are unsafe for pet owners.

Some Plants Are Poisonous to Cats and Dogs

Among the top plants that pet owners should avoid are: all members of the lily family; bulbs like tulips, narcissus and amaryllis; azalea/rhododendron; oleander; crocus; chrysanthemum; castor bean; cyclamen; kalanchoe; yew; sago palm; English ivy; and pothos and schefflera.

“Members of the Lilium spp. are considered to be highly toxic to cats,” according to the ASPCA. “It is clear that with even ingestions of very small amounts of the plant, severe kidney damage could result.” The entirety of the sago palm is toxic, but the seeds in particular are problematic, and ingestion of even just a handful can cause liver failure in pets. In short, while the type of toxicity — from vomiting and diarrhea to cardiac arrhythmia and death — varies from plant to plant, none of them are a good idea for pet owners. 

There also are some common fruit trees that you may want to avoid, like avocado. “Avocado leaves, fruit, seeds and bark contain a toxic principle known as Persin,” says the ASPCA. “The Guatemalan variety, which is the most common variety found in stores, appears to be the most problematic.” Issues with oranges, apples, peaches, cherries, apricots, lemons, limes and grapefruit may also exist for pets. 

Keep Pets Away From Insecticides 

Another area that should be carefully monitored is the use of baits and insecticides. Slug and snail bait, for example, are a real concern. “Certain products used for the control of slugs and snails contain metaldehyde, which can potentially be very dangerous or even lethal to pets,” cautions the ASPCA. And systemic insecticides, such as those used for roses, can cause the same neurological problems in pets as the bugs they are meant to eliminate.

If you want to incorporate plants that aren’t animal friendly, work with your client to create an area of the yard that pets can’t access. Using a fence — real or invisible (electric) — is another way to make sure pets are safe. 

Creating A Pet-Safe Lawn

As for lawns, we all know that pets can wreak havoc. "Dog urine is so acidic, no grass or groundcover can withstand it," says Andria Post-Ergun, a senior landscape architect with the City of Boston. "However, watering grass or groundcover after a dog urinates on the site can lessen any damage," she says. Post-Ergun also suggests using a hardy turf that can stand up to pets. "There are some groundcovers that are pretty tough like euonymus. It’s invasive, but it’s pretty tough,” she says. “You could change your oil on it and it wouldn’t die."

Or consider an alternative ground cover. At Joe Wex Memorial Dog Park at Peter's Park, the first official dog park in Boston, "They’ve come up with a play surfacing for dogs — rice stone, which is smaller than pea gravel — is gentle on their feet, permeable, but it’s not like grass," Post-Ergun says. "That could potentially be a great alternative for people who have dogs that exercise all the time to use in a dog-run."

Keep Your Dog Cool Outside 

It’s also important to create a design that helps family pets protect themselves from the elements. "A lot of people will leave their dogs out in sunny yards enclosed where they have no shade, and shade is really important," says Post-Ergun, who recommends incorporating an indented area in a cool, shady place in the design plan. "A dog will just create that for himself if you don’t create it for him."

Water features also are a creative way to keep dogs hydrated and add visual interest, Post-Ergun says. Just make sure to use the kind with circulating water to avoid mosquitoes, because the ones with chemical additives to kill larvae are bad for household pets.


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