Visiting Veterinarian

Lawn-care for dog lovers

By Michele Gerhard Jasny V.M.D. - July 20, 2006

Wading through a sea of medical records and messages, I looked with mounting panic at the piles of notes scrawled on scraps of paper that littered my desk. Let's see. Here was one from the specialist about the vizsla with chronic weight loss, and a note to myself about researching the case of the rottweiler with severe neurological problems. Someone needed an immediate call about an injured greater shearwater they had found on the beach. "Sure," I told my secretary, grabbing my field guide to "Birds of North America." "Have them bring it right down." I should have at least 10 minutes between the vomiting yorkie, and the biting cockapoo with the nasty skin problems to learn about shearwaters before the bird arrived at my office.

I'm finding multi-tasking isn't as easy as it used to be. Where should I start? Should I call the person whose dog ate a chicken bone, or the one who ate the seashell, or the one who wants to know how often she can bathe her pup?

Ah, here's a pressing matter that requires my medical expertise. Someone wants to know if she can give her dogs baking soda to stop their urine from turning the grass yellow. As I gazed out at the brown spots in my own yard, I realized I didn't know the answer. I thought it was probably a bad idea to mess with a dog's body chemistry simply to have a nice lawn, but it did seem like a less stressful topic to read up on than atypical hyperadrenocorticism or antibiotic-resistant Pseudomonas otitis. I called the chicken bone lady, got the lowdown on shearwaters, made a cuppa tea, and decided to take a breather and read about dog pee.

So ... since you asked. The general consensus among veterinarians is that urine acidity is not the reason that your dog Sweetpea's pee turns the grass brown. In fact, her urine may be acidic, or it may be alkaline. Either can cause big yellow spots on the lawn. The theory is that it is the concentrated nitrogen in urine that burns the grass, much as nitrogen-based fertilizer will if you dump too much on the lawn. What about all those products you see advertised in doggie magazines? They have cute names like G-whiz, Green-um, and Dogonit. What about old folk remedies like feeding tomato juice, or baking soda, or sprinkling sugar on the lawn? Well, some folks swear by 'em. Doesn't mean they really work. Oral home remedies and most of the oral commercial products simply change the pH of Sweetpea's urine. And since we know it ain't the pH that causes the problem, we know that changing the pH won't help. It is telling that while some commercial products advertise that they solve the problem by "neutralizing the alkalinity of urine," others tout "neutralizing the urine's acidity." One product contains yucca, which, the company claims, if fed to Sweetpea will reduce blood ammonia levels. They also claim it eliminates body odor and halitosis. I haven't seen any scientific data to back these claims, nor to prove the product's safety. They also carry a "probiotic soil treatment," that you spray on the burn spots, followed by a good watering, and your grass will grow back nice and green.

Here's the trick. That good watering, all by its lonesome, is the solution to grass burn. You don't need products. You just need to dilute the nitrogen. Some oral supplements may help by causing Sweetpea to increase her fluid intake. Her urine will then be more dilute, hence less nitrogen concentration, hence less grass burn. But you can do the same thing by just going out with a watering can and generously dousing the spots where she urinates. Do this soon after she voids. Your grass will flourish, and you won't be messing with Sweetpea's natural fluid and acid-base balance

Why do some dogs cause lawn problems while others don't? The most notable difference is gender. Girl dogs pee in one spot, concentrating the nitrogen in a single area. Male dogs spread it around more, marking their turf on multiple surfaces. They are less likely to cause yellow lawn spots, but more likely to kill off an individual shrub or tree if they keep christening the same ones. Individual body chemistry is also a factor. Dogs who have highly concentrated urine and those that eat higher protein diets may have more nitrogen in their urine. Making sure Sweetpea always has plenty of clean fresh water to drink is always a healthy idea, for your lawn as well as your dog.

What else can you do? Don't change diets or give additives without checking with your veterinarian. When she waters the lawn, you water after her. Poke the area with a pitchfork a few times. This may help disperse the diluted urine more deeply into the soil, drawing the damaging nitrogen away from the grass. Reseed if needed. Ask landscapers about which varieties of grass are the hardiest.

The most effective way to prevent lawn damage is to train Sweetpea to urinate somewhere besides the backyard. Delegate a specific area as Sweetpea's bathroom. Use a gravel area for good drainage, or a spot at the edge of your property, or in the woods. Make sure it's accessible, safe, and comfortable for her. Then, take her regularly to the bathroom. Bring treats. Encourage her to move quickly past your luscious green yard, until she gets to the designated area. Then praise her and give her treats when she eliminates there. Do this faithfully day after day, week after week. Sweetpea will likely learn the routine. Hey, even my dog, whose main goal in life is to master holding three tennis balls in her mouth at once, has learned this routine. Well, kind of.

The shearwater arrived. You don't get to see these pelagic birds up close too often. It always feels like a gift when I get to handle one. As I suspected, there was no evidence of injury. He was in relatively good body condition, which suggested that there was no underlying illness. He has simply been "wrecked" by the recent windy weather. These guys cannot get airborne from land. If they get blown ashore during a storm, they are stranded unless some Good Samaritan puts them out to sea. The people who brought him in, very graciously took him back to the ocean. The first two times they put him out, he washed ashore again. They then contrived to deliver him farther out, into deeper water, where, they later reported to me, he stretched his wings happily, then swam off, disappearing into the mist on the horizon.

On my horizon, the sea of messages still waited. I stretched my wings, sighed, and dove in.