What’s in my yard that might poison my puppy?
Like so many Americans during this time of isolation and social distancing, we bought a puppy. It was something we were planning to do anyway, but probably not until next year. But it seemed sensible to move up the timeline since we are now both at home, not traveling and not being with our friends. So, with all that said … meet Rusty.
We haven’t raised a puppy for 17 years and had forgotten about the, shall we call them, challenges of an eight-week-old firebrand. We only remember the warm, happy — albeit sluggish as a rock — mature companion we lost.
(Here’s where the gardening part comes in.)
As my nametag implies, a Master Gardener spends a good amount of time in the dirt. I know that one day Rusty will companionably settle in the grass beside me and supervise my weed-pulling or flower-planting or whatever.
But, in the meantime, it’s my job to keep this little demon from killing itself! All dog owners know that young dogs, like human children, experience the world by putting everything in their mouths. So, right after puppy-proofing the house, we’ve had to puppy-proof the garden, starting with identifying plants that are toxic to dogs.
For dog AND cat owners, a couple of the best resources around are the American Kennel Club website (www.akc.org/?s=toxic+plants) and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (www.aspcapro.org/resource/17-plants-poisonous-pets), as well as several Florida-specific articles from UF/IFAS (gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/design/outdoor-living/deadly-plants.html). Whether you garden outside or have a few indoor plants, their lists and articles are an excellent place to start.
In the case of our garden, at least half of the herbaceous perennials and several shrubs are on the toxic list. Therefore, Rusty’s first exploration of the yard had me right behind him pulling out caladiums, crotons and cannas, and trying to drape azaleas. In short, I over-reacted.
“Toxic” is not the same thing as “poisonous.”
Mark Frank, extension botanist at the University of Florida, points out in a popular talk that “all chemical compounds have the potential to cause adverse effects at a high enough dose.”
In other words, “the dose makes the poison.” Even water, in too large a quantity in too short a time period, can cause water toxicity leading to dizziness, confusion, nausea and even death. The first step for me, then, was to identify what the pup was eating and its potential for harm.
Armed with my trusty lists, I finally remembered Frank also talked about the several factors affecting the level of toxicity of plants. Among them is the animal’s individual differences in sensitivity because of body mass (a puppy or a large dog), age, health status (healthy or compromised) or allergies.
Luckily, I remembered Frank also saying that plants produce toxins as a defense mechanism to repel insects and herbivores, thus giving them a competitive edge over nearby plants.
Most important to me is that toxins make the plant smell and/or taste bad and animals generally avoid them. One bite of an azalea leaf and Rusty was off that taste for good. Because serious poisoning is unlikely when small bites of azalea are eaten, there’s no need to rip that particular shrub out of the my garden.
Another factor affecting toxicity is which part of the plant is eaten, inhaled or otherwise ingested. For instance, a rhubarb stalk is edible, but the leaf will cause digestive system problems, while with azaleas, all parts are toxic, including the pollen and honey. So, as the acorns started dropping, we had to learn about the dangers of other plant parts, like the tree seeds and seasonal berries.
Here the lists become quite long, and the specific hazards are very different. It is best, then, to recommend you be aware that plant parts matter. Even though acorns and other seeds may seem like popcorn to your pup, you should research their safety, and as one gardener is known to do, be prepared to take the shop vac to the yard.
As the holiday season approaches, human parents and pet parents alike are going to be asking the same questions. Which of my holiday plants will make my child, dog, cat or my rowdy uncle sick? Here’s a short list to get you started:
• Amaryllis bulbs contain the toxin lycorine, but a human would have to eat a lot of bulbs to become sick. Since puppies and kittens will try to eat anything and love round ball-like objects, be aware that the bulbs can cause diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.
• For the most part, Christmas cacti are safe, even though their spiky leaves are a choking hazard for small children. However, the plant is very fibrous and if, eaten, can cause stomach and intestine upset, leading to vomiting or diarrhea.
• The chrysanthemums already by your front door can cause intestinal irritation. While they aren’t lethal per se, eating any part of the plant can result in vomiting, diarrhea, excessive drooling, skin rashes and loss of coordination.
• Mistletoe is likely to attract the interest of small children and pets. To avoid nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, keep it out of their reach.
• In spite of their bad reputation, poinsettias are safe to use in your home with the proper caution. The milky white sap can cause mild signs of vomiting, drooling or sometimes diarrhea when eaten in large quantities. If you’re sensitive to latex, the sap may cause skin irritation.
Even as you take steps to keep your home and garden safe, accidents happen. Borrowing from an article by Terry Brite DelValle for the Florida Times-Union, “If you suspect your child or pet has eaten a poisonous plant, remove any plant material from their mouth. Rinse their mouth and lips with cool water and then wash your hands with soap and water. Call your physician, veterinarian or poison control center at 1-800-222-1222. This is a nationwide number. If the person is having seizures, trouble breathing or will not wake up, call 911.” Good information for any time of the year.
Note: A copy of Mr. Frank’s power-point presentation is available on the web at conference.ifas.ufl.edu/gardener/presentations/Monday/MAGNOLIA%20A/0915%20MarcFrank.pdf. Unfortunately, it doesn’t capture his wit.
Paula Weatherby is a Master Gardener Volunteer with the Duval County Extension Service and the University of Florida/IFAS. For gardening questions, call the Duval County Extension Office at (904) 255-7450 from 9 a.m. to noon and 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. Monday-Friday and ask for a Master Gardener Volunteer.