How to make sure your backyard is safe for your dog or cat

By Dr. Tracy Acosta

I am sure that everyone is more than ready to head outdoors to enjoy some much-needed sunshine as the days get longer and we ease into summertime. Along with the warmer weather lies the desire to beautify and to revive our yards and gardens.

For pet owners, it is also a great time to do a little checking around the house and the backyard to ensure that your pets will be safe. The yard during this time of year can be deadly if pet owners are not careful.

Some of the more common hazards are the garden and yard applications ranging from insecticides to fertilizers. Obviously, veterinarians and lawn maintenance advisers are recommending that pet owners treat their yards for all kinds of pests, including those that are a nuisance to pets, such as fleas and ticks, and those that are bad for your yards, such as mole crickets. One benefit of winter weather is the reduced insect population. It is not guaranteed, but we all wish for some advantage in the war against pests.

Whether you apply these chemicals to your yard or you hire a professional to do it for you, it is imperative that label instructions be followed exactly regarding the safety measures for you and your pets. Apply these products only in the amounts suggested and be sure to follow the timeframes given regarding to when it is safe for pets and for humans to return to the yard after application.

I highly recommend alternating the areas that you treat in your yard so that at any one time your pets will have a safe area for exercise and other "duties." It is much better to be safe than sorry.

Remember that your pets can be endangered with yard chemicals of any kind, not only through oral ingestion but also through skin contact. Last time I checked most pets do not wear shoes; therefore, they have a greater chemical risk either through direct contact or through oral ingestion after licking their paws. Always follow label instructions, as they vary from one product to another. Also, be sure to store these products out of reach when not in use.

Other commonly used products in the yard and home include baits aimed at everything from snails and slugs to moles, gophers and even those pesky beavers. Of course, rodenticides aimed at mice and rats also fall under this warning category. These are all potentially fatal if ingested by a pet. Extreme caution -- and better yet, complete avoidance -- is advised. If you even think your pet has possibly ingested any of these types of products, seek veterinary attention immediately and bring along labels from the products in question.

An area many pet owners may fail to realize can hold danger is the type of plants in the yard. This is especially important to review if you have a new puppy or kitten that may have not been around for last year's planting season. It is highly recommended that you choose plants, mulch and other ground covers that are nontoxic through either direct contact or consumption.

Obviously, some pets who are older and are not in the eat-everything-in-sight stage may allow more flexibility in plant choices, but when making additions, always ask if a plant is toxic. If you have any questions, your veterinarian can assist you to help avoid problems. Several springtime plants that are known to cause gastrointestinal upset include tulips, calla lilies, amaryllis, iris and caladium. Then there are the plants that are considered very toxic and can even cause death, which include azaleas, oleanders, rhododendrons, Japanese yew, Easter lilies, tiger lilies, sago palms and morning glories.

Again, a lot depends on the pet's personality and the amount your pet likes to chew on things. If your pets are known to eat things without hesitation, be sure to also avoid planting onions, chives and garlic in your vegetable garden. The above plant lists are not complete. There are plenty of great and safe plants to choose from, so do your homework before putting your pets at risk. Two great reference websites for a complete list of toxic plants are and

As a reminder for all of you who own terriers, retrievers and any of the other "landscape architects," remember that a sense of humor and a lot of patience are required. Often, our opinions as humans concerning landscaping can differ widely from those of our pets.

Finally, while working in the yard on these beautiful warm days, it is a great time to spend quality time with your pets outside soaking up the sun. However, always make sure that your pets are kept far away from any type of lawn equipment. Not only can lawn mowers and weed trimmers throw debris into your eyes, they also can seriously injure your pets as well. Just think about their height level compared to your own. This is especially true for those pets that go into attack mode over anything from a vacuum cleaner to a lawn mower.

It is best to keep pets indoors or to keep them in a pen/outdoor enclosure far away from all forms of mechanical activity. By following a few common-sense guidelines, you and your pets can enjoy the glorious warm weather safely.

Dr. Tracy Acosta, is a veterinarian at Acosta Veterinary Hospital in Biloxi. If you have questions for this column, write to South Mississippi Veterinary Medical Association, 20005 Pineville Road, Long Beach MS 39560 and include a self-addressed stamped envelope.