Summer’s here, which means lawn maintenance becomes much more of a priority for many households. This often means spraying fertilizers and pesticides to achieve a weed-free, perfectly manicured lawn. It’s definitely appealing to the eye, but there are many hidden dangers associated with these chemicals, both to the environment and to the health of people and animals that come in contact with them.
Dogs are some of the most vulnerable to the effects of lawn chemicals. They spend a lot of time in yards sniffing, running/lounging/rolling around, and sometimes even chewing on grass, and often come in contact with many other lawns while out walking.
One study tested the amount of lawn chemicals in urine samples from 25 dogs. Chemicals were detected in 14 dogs before lawn treatment, and in 19 after treatment. The researchers noted that “chemicals were commonly detected in grass residues from treated lawns, and from untreated lawns, suggesting chemical drift from nearby treated areas. 1
What does this exposure mean for our furry friends? Sadly, some serious health problems.
Immediate, short-term effects of lawn chemical exposure include respiratory problems, eye irritation, skin rashes, diarrhea, seizures, nausea, and vomiting. Long-term effects can be much more life threatening.
First off, lawn chemicals may disrupt a dog’s delicate microbiome. The microbiome (the colonies of bacteria and other microbes that inhabit the gut) is a critical component of a dog’s metabolic functions, immune system, and more.
Even worse, lawn chemicals are linked to the development of cancer.
One six-year study out of Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine found that the use of certain lawn care products upped the risk of canine malignant lymphoma—with professionally applied pesticides increasing risk by 70%.2
Another study involving Scottish terriers showed that lawns treated with both herbicides and insecticides, or herbicides alone, led to canine bladder cancer.3
Having a dog walk in treated grass can affect your health too. Pesticide residue on your dog’s paws or coat get tracked into your house, where it can then be ground into rugs, carpets, and furniture. Without exposure to rain and sunlight (which break them down faster), these chemicals can linger indoors for months, even years. This puts the entire family—humans and pets alike—at risk.
Pet-Safe Natural Lawn Care
It’s pretty hard to fully avoid lawn chemicals—unless of course you don’t use them and also live in a remote rural setting with no one else around for miles. Even if you don’t spray chemicals, if you live near others, the pesticides and fertilizers your neighbors use can drift from their yards onto your property, either via air or water supply.
It’s not all bad news, though. By focusing on keeping your own home as organic and natural as possible, you can minimize your and your dog’s exposure significantly enough to help prevent major health problems.
If you’re not into handling your own lawn care and fertilization, a simple internet search for organic lawn care or natural lawn care in your area will likely yield some local companies that can do the work for you. Since more and more people are becoming familiar with the dangers of glyphosate and other traditional pesticides, organic lawn care is becoming much more popular these days—and companies are filling this demand.
If you don’t have a local company that can handle natural lawn care for you, or if you prefer to do it on your own, here are some good chemical-free options to fertilize your grass and create a pest-free, pet-safe lawn.
- Grass clippings: If you mow your lawn frequently enough, leaving the clippings instead of raking them up can help to fertilize your lawn naturally. Grass clippings add nutrients (especially nitrogen) into the soil. In fact, clippings ½-inch or shorter can supply up to 40% of your lawn’s yearly fertilizer requirements. The trick is to make sure the clippings are this short. If they get too long or are too wet, they will smother the grass and do more harm than good.
- Seaweed: Also known as kelp, seaweed is an excellent natural lawn care product that has been used as a lawn and turf fertilizer for many years. Research shows it “contains many important plant growth regulators, such as auxins, cytokinins and gibberellins. It also contains micronutrients to enhance a plant’s ability to resist pest and disease attack.”4 Grasses treated with biostimulants like seaweed also endure stress better because they have a stronger defense system in place.
- Neem oil: The active compound in neem oil, azadiractin, is used in some natural bug sprays. It also happens to be a safe natural pesticide for grass, killing some of the most annoying and hated lawn pests—thrips, mealy bugs, fungi, and more. Mix 2-4 tablespoons of the oil in one gallon of water and use within a few hours. Spray your lawn every 7-14 days (more if you have problem pests, less if you are spraying preventively).
- Diatomaceous earth is ground, fossilized remains of a phytoplankton called diatoms. It is virtually harmless to dogs, humans, beneficial pollinators, and other “nonpests,” but incredibly effective at killing true pests. Diatomaceous earth is a scratchy dust, so when pests with exoskeletons (hard shells on the outside) are exposed to it, it cuts through the exoskeleton, causing them to dehydrate and die. This same property can irritate skin and eyes, so when applying, it’s a good idea to wear a mask and gloves. To use, mix one pound of diatomaceous earth with one gallon of water. Reapply once a week until the pest problem goes away.
- Ladybugs & nematodes: Both of these living “creatures” provide amazing natural pest control. A bit of a misnomer, ladybugs are actually a type of beetle. They prey on many destructive pests, including aphids, chinch bugs, weevils, thrips, mealy bugs, mites, and more. Nematodes are naturally occurring, microscopic organisms found in soil. They infest a wide range of insects that have soil-dwelling larvae or pupae, destroying them at an early stage. Both ladybugs and nematodes can be purchased at garden centers.
These are just a few pet-safe fertilizer and pesticide options. If you’re serious about natural lawn care, I suggest going to your local nursery or garden center and learning about all the options available. Most importantly, read labels on all products you decide to use. Avoid those that clearly state they aren’t safe for pets.
Finally, remember that even if your lawn is pet safe, others may not be. So, after walks, wash or wipe down your dog’s coat and paws before letting him into the house. And leave your own shoes at the door to avoid tracking in anything unsavory.
*This blog was developed with Veterinarian Dana Wilhite, DVM to help educate pet owners.
- Knapp DW, et al. Detection of herbicides in the urine of pet dogs following home lawn application. Sci Total Environ. 2013 Jul 1;456-457:34-41.
- Takashima-Uebelhoer B, et al. Household chemical exposures and the risk of canine malignant lymphoma, a model for human non-hodgkin’s lymphoma. Environ Res. 2012 Jan;112:171-176.
- Glickman L, et al. Herbicide exposure and the risk of transitional cell carcinoma of the urinary bladder in Scottish Terriers. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2004 Apr 15;224(8):1290-7.
- Butler T, et al. Kelp helps root mass in turf. Turfgrass Trends. 2007 Sept.
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