Choose plants carefully for pet-friendly landscapes

Richard Bogren, Gill, Daniel J.

For Release On Or After 03/19/10

By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist

Your landscape is there to be enjoyed by you and your family. It’s the setting for your home and provides a space for outdoor activities. Lawn areas offer a wonderful place for kids to play, barbeques, family get-togethers and parties on decks and patios. If your family includes pets, your landscape will likely be used by them as well.

In some ways, having pets in your landscape is like having young children. Although pets are less likely than a young child to get hurt in a landscape, you still have similar precautions – such as watching out for poisonous plants.

Pets also can cause problems in the landscape. But pet owners who love their pets generally manage to tolerate or forgive minor indiscretions. So you have two major issues – keeping your landscape from harming your pet and keeping your pet from harming your landscape.


All of us likely grow plants that could be toxic to dogs or cats. The good news is, despite the abundance and ready availability of these plants to pets, incidents of poisoning are not especially common. In the number of poisoned pet contacts ranked by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, plants came in fourth after human medications (50,000 calls), insecticides (particularly those applied to dogs and cats for flea control, 31,000 calls) and people food (like chocolate, 15,000 calls). Rat poison and veterinarian medications joined poisonous plants with about 8,000 calls each. The plants involved were mostly indoor plants. The ASPCA Web site has an excellent list of plants poisonous to cats and dogs.

Azaleas, for instance, can be fatally toxic to dogs – and people, too. As they bloom this spring, look and see how many azaleas are in landscapes. Obviously, dogs don’t typically eat azaleas and get poisoned by them. Although I did hear of an incident involving a puppy left alone inside a house all day with a potted azalea. The puppy died.

One plant, however, should make dog owners wary – the sago palm. The cycad we call sago palm is not actually related to palms; it’s related to conifers like pine trees and bald cypresses. As such, its reproductive structures are cones. Sagos come in male and female forms, and the females present the most dangerous situation.

Female sagos form large, dome-shaped cones on the top of the plant during the summer. The seeds mature in January and February and drop to the ground sometime thereafter. The seeds are covered with a fleshy read 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 numerous fatalities have been reported over the years in our area. So, gather the seeds from female sagos and dispose of them.

You can do some research and discover which plants are especially toxic to animals – lilies, for instance, are highly toxic to cats – and avoid planting them in your landscape. But I’m not sure how far I would go to radically change an existing landscape – like ripping out all the azaleas – to eliminate all potentially toxic plants.

Other tips

If you leave your dog outside unattended, make sure your fences are up to the job of keeping it inside your yard. Avoid large gaps because 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 both use the yard when they relieve themselves, and this can create problems. Larger dogs may produce enough urine in one spot to kill the grass. These dead spots usually will fill in with new grass eventually, but they still look unsightly. You can reduce the problem with dietary supplements available from your vet or pet stores.

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

It may sometimes be necessary to discourage a pet from entering an area. Repellents will help, but they must be reapplied frequently to be effective. Fences, temporary or permanent, may be necessary to keep a dog from getting into some areas, such as your vegetable garden, if they have been doing a lot of damage by digging.

Cats generally won’t bother decorative ponds or aquatic features in a landscape; although I have seen one or two eying 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 – so if you can, choose breeds that are not so drawn to the water if you have a pond and are contemplating getting a new dog. Or you can fence off the feature from existing pets.

The Internet has lots of excellent information on this topic. Simply Google “pet friendly gardening,” and you’ll find many links to explore.

Rick Bogren


1/4/2011 1:07:10 AM
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