Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

U of I logoCollege of Veterinary Medicine

Back to search page.

Digging Up Danger: Is Your Pet Safe in the Backyard?


Pet Column for the week of August 26, 2010

Related information:

Related site - Plants Toxic to Animals
Related site - ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Julia Disney
Information Specialist

As you savor these last few weeks of summer, you (and your pets) may be trying to get in as much outside time as possible before the chill of winter sneaks up on us all. But perhaps your pet, like mine, tends to eat anything and everything, edible or not. The backyard is full of what your pet may think as tasty treats, but, you may wonder, can anything out there be poisonous?

Dr. Tina Wismer, adjunct professor of toxicology at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine and senior director of Veterinary Outreach and Education at the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center in Urbana, says that there are many dangers for our four-legged friends lurking in the great outdoors.

The first thing that may come to mind, of course, is plants. Your dog may feast on grass and flowerbeds, but that could result in more than just a high landscaping bill. Various plants and mushrooms are poisonous to dogs and cats, with consequences ranging from mild vomiting to death. Some of the most toxic plants are more common in certain regions of the country. Yews, azaleas/rhododendrons, water hemlock, poison hemlock, and castor bean are among those highly toxic plants which are very common in the Midwest.

Because of the danger to your pets, it is extremely valuable to learn the names of the plants in your yard and take proper precautions to prevent exposure, even if that means removal or blocking the plants off. If your pet ingests part of a plant or mushroom you cannot identify, Dr. Wismer suggests first contacting your veterinarian. Bringing a sample of the plant to your veterinarian or a local nursery or even doing a simple Google Image search can aid in identification. Identification is very important, as it will aid your veterinarian in providing the appropriate treatment to your pet.

Other potentially harmful substances lurking in the backyard include products you may use to keep pests away or to beautify your garden. Products like snail and slug baits (containing metaldehyde) and insecticides can result in toxicity. The key, Dr. Wismer says, is to be sure to "follow all label directions before using around any pets. Many products have a specific time frame that pets need to be off the treated areas."

Many pet owners are also aware that chocolate is toxic to animals, but may not realize that things like cocoa mulch would present the same problem. Just like chocolate, cocoa mulch contains the methylxanthines that cause problems with the heart in animals and can be fatal at high doses.

If you compost or have fruit trees in your backyard, you should be aware that decomposing material and fallen, rotten fruit may be growing mold. If mold is ingested by your pet along with that juicy apple or banana peel, it can cause tremors and seizures in the animal.

For general backyard safety, Dr. Wismer suggests taking the following steps:

* Identify plants present and determine their toxicity level; Remove or block off plants that may be toxic;
* Before using any product, read the label and contact the company with questions;
* Supervise your pets in the outdoors, especially in new environments.

Many resources, including a toxic plant guide, are available on the ASPCA website: ASPCA.org. If your pet has been exposed to a potentially toxic plant or product, you can also contact the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at 888-426-4435 (a $65 consultation fee may be applied to your credit card).

For further information on pet-proofing your backyard, contact your local veterinarian.