Our gardens ... safe
haven or hazard zone?
YOU have a new dog in your family and you have been extra careful to make it's environment safe, warm and interesting. You have checked that the fences are all strong and high enough and there are no holes either through, or under, the boundary. You have bought yard toys to amuse the new member of your family, there is either a kennel or porch/verandah for shelter during the day and a tree or two for your dog to sit under when a cool rest is desired. And to complete the picture the power meter box is at the front of the house and the fenced area is at the back. Nothing else could possibly go wrong ... or could it?
First, take stock of your garden - if your new dog is just a puppy it will taste and chew on anything it finds in the yard - sometimes even adult dogs will do that - and berries that look tempting are often eaten, especially if they taste sweet or neutral. Even the vegetable garden is not without dangers.
Following are some of the most common but poisonous plants that you may have growing in your garden.
In the highly toxic group are alcaloid-containing hemlock, castor oil plant and yew. Most parts of these plants are extremely poisonous. Symptoms noticed could be trembling, diarrhoea, confusion, increased heart rate, profuse sweating and collapse. Alkaloids depress electrical activity in the heart, as well as causing abdominal pain and irritation.
The castor oil plant is a stout, robust shrub-like plant with reddish to purple stems that may reach three metres in height. The large umbrella-like leaves have pointed, finger-like lobes. Long purple leaf stems are attached near the centres of the leaf blades. Greenish-white or reddish-brown flowers are produced in narrow, upright clusters. The fruit is a three-lobed, green or red capsule with a soft, spiny exterior. One large, mottled seed develops in each lobe.
The seed is only toxic if the outer shell is broken or chewed open. Seeds swallowed intact usually pass completely through the digestive system without incident in the dog, but signs of toxicity may not be evident for 18 to 24 hours.
Yew (taxus) is often used in landscaping around house foundations. A fatal dose for a dog can be only a 10th of one percent of its body weight. As with most such poisonings at home it is thought that the number of deaths is greater than on record - unless a post mortem is performed the cause of death is usually thought to be a heart attack.
Hemlock is more a problem on farms or roadsides - it is not often seen in a yard, but if you do have any, uproot it immediately and make sure your pets have no access to the uprooted plants. In New Zealand hemlock can be seen on roadsides everywhere but most animals seem to avoid it, especially dogs (stock may eat it when forage is scarce).
Cardiac glycosides are contained at various levels in such plants as oleander (very high toxicity), rhododendron and azalea (honey made from the nectar of these plants is also poisonous, so they should never be planted near beehives), lily of the valley, laurel, foxglove, ivy.
Symptoms include erratic heartbeat, vomiting, diarrhoea, depression, abdominal pain - or the animal could die very quickly. The effect depends on the amount of toxin eaten.
The group of plants that contains oxalates includes begonia, philodendron, calla lily, peace lily and rhubarb (leaves only). This group causes calcium oxalate crystals to form in the organs and acute allergic reactions include drooling, difficulty breathing, vomiting and diarrhoea, or head shaking.
Plants containing solanines affect either stomach or the brain, depending on which of the two toxins is present. They include the nightshades, Chinese lantern and ornamental pepper. Severe gastrointestinal upset can be the sole symptom, or drowsiness, drooling, difficult breathing, trembling, weakness and collapse. Both types of symptom may be present if both toxins are in the plant eaten.
Bracken (fern)is on its own containing a lactone toxin which has an anticoagulant effect. All parts of the plant contain toxins, especially roots. Because effects can be on bone marrow, cell production or vitamin Bl destruction, the onset of symptoms may be over many weeks.
Other plants that contain toxins are:
- Apricot, cherry, peach, plum - pit
- Chrysanthemum, feverfew, buttercup - sap
- Holly, mistletoe - berries
- Hydrangea - flower and bud
- Lupin - whole plant
- Poinsettia - leaves and stems
- Privet, lovage - whole plant and berries
- Macrocarpa, Laburnum, Ngaio, Tutu
- English ivy - leaves and berries
- Black walnut - husk, bark shavings
- Daffodil bulbs
Obviously many things can be done to keep your puppy safe while retaining your beloved plants. Inside the house or wherever you keep plants, keep them off the ground and above the height of possible dog access, especially if you work and leave your dog inside the house.
Many of the plants are bitter or irritating for an animal to chew so it will not continue to do unless starving or completely bored, so always make sure your pup has plenty of toys and objects to chew if you are away for a few hours.
If you love your rhododendron or azalea too much to part with it, consider transplanting it out of the puppy's area of access. If that is not possible, keep the main trunk clear of branches to a height that the puppy can not reach, or consider fencing it off. Rake up any leaves, flowers or seeds as soon as they fall and quickly dispose of all cuttings and raked-up debris where the puppy can not access them.
Finally, training is also important - if you see the puppy chewing on any tree it is better to be safe and prevent that developing as a habit - toys and plenty of activities will easily take the pup's attention away from a tree trunk. If they have a preference for wood, provide a few logs of untreated, safe wood for your pup to chew and play on.
Yard safety, however, is not yet attained - there are still possible problems that you have not thought of. First, the rubbish. Whether you use a compost heap, rubbish bag, rubbish pit or any other method of disposal, your pup must never have access to the rubbish area. If you live near a farm make sure the pup can not access farm carcases or offal, and likewise can not eat road kill left to rot. The bacteria from such foods can make your dog seriously ill.
A step on and we come to the garage or shed - at least one member of the family is likely to work on the family car - changing oil, putting in anti-freeze for the winter, polishing, cleaning the engine ... and the most dangerous substance here is anti-freeze. Its danger lies in that it has a sweet taste so animals do not recognise its danger. It affects both the neurological system and the kidneys. NEVER leave a container on the ground - even if it has a lid on it. There may be some spillage around the top of the container that a dog could lick up. If you spill some on the ground, clean it up immediately.
Other dangerous preparations are pine oils, scouring agents, grease removers, electric dishwashing detergents, bleach and toilet cleaners (dogs may drink the toilet water). With many such preparations dogs may suffer damage to their paws just from walking across a newly cleaned area or a patch of cleaner that you failed to notice when you spilled it. Keep all containers of toxic materials closed and out of reach of your dog.
Flea products are another danger - they must always be used strictly as instructed. If the container says you can use a flea product up to once-weekly, do NOT use it daily. Instructions are for a purpose - the safety and comfort of your dog.
Sometimes a dog may have an allergic reaction to a specific type of flea treatment. It could develop poor appetite, depression, vomiting, diarrhoea or drooling, so if you notice such symptoms soon after you have used a flea treatment stop using it and ask your vet to advise on a treatment with alternative ingredients. If you are still worried about using such preparations and not squeamish about squashing a flea or two, the safest method is a daily comb with a fine-toothed flea comb.
What method do you use to rid your yard of weeds? Those in the lawn are taken care of during mowing, but what about the edges? Dogs often graze on grass and use twitch (cooch) as an emetic when they need to rid their stomach's irritating contents. For this reason do not use weedkillers. There are safer methods such as weedeaters, a hoe (the exercise is good for you or if the area is small enough, boiling water (many councils now use this method).
Rat, mouse, slug and snail baits are a constant worry for vets in some areas. These baits are made palatable so they will be eaten by target creatures, so it is natural that if a dog has access to them it will also be attracted. Never put any kind of bait in your garden or yard, even if it is in a container or covered. And the only safe area to lay rat bait is in an under-floor storage area that is fully enclosed and always kept firmly locked.
Slug and snail baits are never safe - if the slugs can find them so can your dog. A better method of control is to dig out the plants that these creatures love to live in, and lightly spray any individual you catch slithering along the ground or up a wall or fence with plain bleach - deadly to them as it dries up the mucus. But make sure your puppy is not playing nearby when you carry out the procedure. They move very quickly if they think you are playing, and the bleach spray could get in their eyes or mouth.
Ant poison, too, is on the highly dangerous list. There are dozens of preparations that kill ants, termites, wasps and garden pests, and usually they contain organophosphates or carbamates. Both types have a similar effect in the body - they disrupt the normal function of the nervous system and cause a build-up of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. In some instances the poison is absorbed through the skin. Symptoms can include excessive saliva, pawing the eyes, excessive urination, diarrhoea, muscle twitching and difficult breathing.
A word of warning, too, about heavy metals. Zinc poisoning sometimes occurred when an animal swallowed pennies (cents). The metal interacted with blood causing weakness and loss of appetite. The unavailability now of either cents or pennies may have nullified that problem, but there could be an occasion when your dog digs one up out of the garden.
As a general rule, when you are bringing home a new dog or puppy, treat its playing and living areas as if it was a human toddler you were bringing home ... then make it even safer, because you can not verbally warn your dog of danger. It may seem like overkill, but it is worth extra work to know your yard is pup-proof.
Once you have taken care of all the yard and house area dangers as listed here you will be well on the way to providing the new member of your family with a comfortable area in which he/she can play, rest, eat and drink safely. As the dog's owner you will then be able to leave your dog in the yard while you work, shop, visit a friend or attend meetings, knowing that there is no problem likely to arise while you are away - your dog has shelter, fresh water, toys to play with and a safe environment.