The Truth About Cats, Dogs and Lawn Chemicals

Is that perfect-looking lawn perfectly safe for your pet?

Is that perfect-looking lawn perfectly safe for your pet?

It's hard for the pet-loving homeowner to know how much to rely on the lawn pesticide or fertilizer label that declares the product is safe for use around pets. Studies of lawn chemical hazards often seem confusing and even contradictory. Meantime, you just want healthy pets and an attractive yard.

Caution is Required

Most lawn treatments offered on the shelves of lawn and garden stores or applied by lawn-care services are chemical concoctions designed to aggressively treat your grass and control how it looks, almost like steroids for your lawn. Various such chemicals are known to not only kill unwanted weeds or insects, but to endanger the health of other creatures, including pets.

Hazards Debated

How dangerous various lawn chemicals are to people and their pets both short term and in the long run is part of debates over these chemicals among environmental advocacy groups, chemical companies and government. For example, two herbicides widely used in formulations to kill weeds in lawns -- glyphosate and 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, often called 2,4-D -- have been under review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in recent years. Environmental organizations have presented evidence of health hazards connected with both active and inactive ingredients in products containing the chemicals, according to the "Journal of Pesticide Reform," published by the Oregon-based Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides. The companies that produce the chemicals deny significant hazard in residential use. The EPA in April 2012 announced it would not ban 2,4-D, denying a 2008 petition from the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. The EPA's final decision on its review of Roundup, a glyphosate-based herbicide, is scheduled for 2015.

Governmental Actions

Some state and local governments have not waited for results of EPA reviews. In mid-2011, the city of Boulder, Colorado, stopped using Roundup in public places, while Canada's Ontario province banned "all non-essential weedkillers." Many states, focusing on children in their worries about health effects of lawn chemicals, have ordered the use of integrated pest management programs on school property. Such programs aim at reducing or eliminating the use of chemicals by trying other pest-control methods first. Connecticut has gone further, banning the use of pesticides on school playing fields since 2005. New York in 2010 enacted a similar ban with its Child Safe Playing Field Act, and New Jersey in early 2013 is pondering similar legislation, urged on by pediatricians in the state.

Not Only an Outside Concern

If you conclude the lawn chemicals you select are sufficiently safe, it's still a good idea to keep your canine or feline pal away when you're applying them. It's good to take other precautions, as well. Powder and liquid chemical applications don't go from the container onto your grass and then stay there. While most of it goes where intended, some can be carried by air movement into neighboring yards and inside your home. Some can also be carried indoors on shoes and paws, clothing and fur. It's important to prevent your pets' access to chemical products. A playful dog can grab up a package in his mouth to invite a game or to chew on. A puppy or other pet may sample a spilled product to test whether it might be a snack. Even if he is put off by the flavor after just one taste, one taste of some products may do harm.

Long-Term Risk

Keeping your pets indoors on the days when your lawn has been treated with chemicals is a good idea, but it's no guarantee that the chemicals won't affect them. Chemicals that are part of long-lasting treatments are likely to be present for some time after application. You will need to find out whether your dog or cat can be affected from exposure by romping across the grass and breathing chemical residues or by getting them on their feet and fur, then ingesting them during grooming. If your pets like to occasionally nibble grass, they may be eating some chemicals or their breakdown products along with it.

Alternatives to Chemicals

You can try a number of chemical-free ways to make your property attractive. For example, you can learn about integrated pest management techniques, and plant grasses that are appropriate for your climate. Many homeowners favor Kentucky bluegrass, but hardy turf and fescue or even buffalo grass are slow-growing, low-maintenance alternatives. To keep the insects at bay, opt for grass seed that is enhanced with endophytes, fungi that won't harm anything but pests. You can reduce your lawn size and fill in with attractive but vigorous ground cover and native flowers. Snow-in-Summer (Cerastium tomentosum), Monarda and coneflowers (Echinacea) are attractive, and they don't take any guff from weeds.

About the Author

Elle Di Jensen has been a writer and editor since 1990. She began working in the fitness industry in 1987, and her experience includes editing and publishing a workout manual. She has an extended family of pets, including special needs animals. Jensen attended Idaho and Boise State Universities. Her work has appeared in various print and online publications.

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