Some plants described as toxic will produce unpleasant but not necessarily fatal symptoms, while others are simply too risky to have in the garden. How dangerous a plant is to your dog depends not just on the plant itself, but the part of it and quantity eaten, your dog's size, age, weight, and health status.
Lots of people combine dog ownership with gardens stuffed with toxic plants and never have a problem, but you will have to decide for yourself whether giving known toxic plants a place in your own garden is an acceptable risk. Don't forget that it's not just plants in your garden that can be a potential hazard, but those in neighbouring gardens if they grow under, or overhang fences.
Not only but also
It's not just toxicity that you need to think about when choosing plants; some may not be poisonous but pose a risk in other ways, such as having spiky leaves or thorns that might damage eyes and tear thin skin.
Others, such as ornamental grasses, may have seed heads that can cause as much trouble as their wild relatives if they become lodged in ears, eyes, noses, and between the toes.
Even if you think your pet is unlikely to chew on plants, be aware that some can cause skin irritation. I removed a lovely tradescantia from the garden when I discovered that many members of this family are responsible for causing allergic skin reactions. I'd already had some trouble with my Whippet Archie in that department, and saw no reason to expose him to yet another possible source of irritation.
Ivy can be another culprit so has also been removed from ground level, although pretty variegated varieties trail from hanging baskets, well out of reach. And a euphorbia left by the previous owners of our house went within a day of moving in as the milky sap can burn.
Other garden nasties
Plants may be the first and most obvious area of concern when it comes to safety, but there are plenty of other potential hazards in the garden. High on the Veterinary Poisons Information Service's (VPIS) list of most common poisons are rodenticides and ant powders, especially those professional products used by pest control companies.
According to the RSPCA, metaldehyde slug and snail pellets are the most common known cause of dog deaths referred to the VPIS. Another slug killer, aluminium sulphate powder, can also be harmful, causing irritation to mucous membranes if it is inhaled, and most dogs love to sniff their way around the garden.
Most of us are aware that chocolate can be lethal to dogs, but so can its waste products in the form of cocoa shells, which are sold as a garden mulch. They smell delicious, and dogs may be tempted to sample them.
Compressed coir is another product which, while being a wonderful compost, needs to be kept away from your dog. It swells phenomenally when water is added, and it doesn't take a lot of imagination to work out what could happen if your dog ingests some while still in its concentrated state.
While gardening organically is generally safer for you, your pet, and the local wildlife, certain products can spell trouble: fertilisers containing blood, bone, fish, or feather meal may be fabulous for plants but might be too tasty to resist for dogs. Ingestion can lead to problems including severe pancreatitis and blockages in the gut.
Plants to avoid
Plants that are potentially fatal and best avoided altogether include:
- Oleander (Nerium oleander).
- Yew (Taxus sp).
- Pieris (Pieris japonica).
- Sweet Pea (Lathyrus latifolius).
- Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis).
- Larkspur (Delphinium sp).
- Castor oil plant (Ricinus communis).
- Autumn Crocus (Colchicum autumnale).
As a general rule of thumb, it's safe to assume that if a plant is toxic to humans then it's going to be harmful to your dog too. The reverse doesn't automatically apply though as there are many plants that are safe for us to eat but which can be dangerous for our pets, including grapes, avocado, onions, and leeks.
Do your research before buying plants. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has a useful area on its website at www.aspca.org devoted to poisonous and pet-friendly plants with accompanying pictures to help you identify them. Dogs Trust also has a handy list you can consult at www.dogstrust.org.uk
If the worst happens …
… and your dog eats something he shouldn't, the onset of any clinical effects can take anything from 15 minutes to 48 hours. Symptoms may include salivating and drooling, vomiting, severe diarrhoea, and abdominal tenderness. As soon as you are aware of the problem, don't wait to see if your dog develops any of these signs, but contact your vet immediately. If he thinks it would help to induce vomiting (some things may be as harmful coming up as going down) he will tell you how to go about it, but in most instances it is more important to get your dog to the surgery as quickly as possible. Your vet will then be able to administer more efficient drugs to make your dog vomit, as well as provide any supportive treatment. Take along samples of plant material or packaging of chemicals to ensure correct identification and treatment.
The lists of harmful plants can seem endless, but if you have to sacrifice a few plants for your dog's safety, you can at least console yourself with the fact that there are plenty of dog-friendly alternatives to choose from. A few of my personal favourites, which happily are also easy to grow, include:
- Lambs ears (Stachys byzantina)- with its traditional associations with gentleness, the soft fuzzy texture of the silvery leaves is irresistible.
- Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum sp)- wonderfully versatile as ground cover, climbing up fencing, or trailing from hanging baskets, and as long as they have been out of reach of dog fouling, both the leaves and flowers can be added to salads. Angel loves to nibble at the occasional peppery leaf too! The seed is easy to collect, so after buying your first packet you'll have a free supply for next year, too.
- Snapdragons (Antirrhinum sp)- bought as bedding plants or easily raised from seed, there is a wide range of gloriously vibrant colours to choose from.
- Mahonia (Mahonia sp) - provides a year-round evergreen display of holly shaped leaves, plus sprays of bright yellow flowers from November to March, followed by dark berries which I'm told you can use to make wine or a rather good jam.
- Forget me not (Myositis sp) - I love the pale blue drifts that appear each spring. A freely self-seeding plant, it's perfect for lazy gardeners and I enjoy the spontaneity as the flowers unexpectedly pop up in odd corners of the garden. Tidy gardeners may be less thrilled by this, but it is easy enough to weed out.