Visiting Vet: Gardening products

Keeping four-footed pals safe while you plant.

The plants I bought for my flowerboxes sit in their plastic pots, taunting me, waiting to be transplanted. Gardening. I am notoriously bad at it. I do, however, know about gardening products … at least in terms of how they affect our four-footed friends. Let’s talk about things you green-thumb types sprinkle around your property this time of year.

Granular fertilizers are organically or inorganically sourced soil additives. Pansy the pussycat and Petunia the pup may get exposed when they trot through the grass after you have scattered fertilizer over your yard. Fertilizer gets on pets. Pets lick it off. At this level of ingestion, many fertilizers just cause drooling and/or mild, self-limiting vomiting and diarrhea. But what if Petunia finds the big bag and helps herself to a healthy helping — what then?

Toxicity associated with ingestion of large amounts of fertilizer varies depending on the specific product. Fertilizer combined with pesticides, such as Weed ’n’ Feed, are often poisonous. Call your veterinarian. Fertilizer containing high iron concentrations can cause iron toxicity. Signs may include bloody vomiting and diarrhea, abdominal pain, weakness, shock, collapse, even death. Call your veterinarian. Then there are sewage-based fertilizers such as Milorganite. Dogs love this stuff and will eat a whole, um, boatload, given the opportunity. Besides an upset tummy, sewage-based fertilizer ingestion can cause an unusual syndrome with muscle weakness, stiffness, and severe malaise lasting for days. Symptoms typically abate on their own, but medical treatment can speed recovery. Moldy fertilizer that has been sitting in your shed for months (or years) may contain mycotoxins that can cause incoordination, tremors, seizures, and high fever when ingested. What do you do? (Say it with me.) Call. Your. Veterinarian.

What about bone meal? This popular meat-packing byproduct isn’t poisonous, but can still cause serious problems. Petunia thinks bone meal is stinky and delicious. If she eats a handful, it can clump into a solid mass, causing gastrointestinal obstruction that may require surgical removal. Call. Your. Veterinarian. If it’s within four hours of ingestion, we can induce vomiting. Bone meal will show up on x-rays so we can see how much Petunia ate, and where it is in her gut. Bone meal ingestion is particularly problematic for dogs with a previous history of pancreatitis, as it can lead to recurrence of that condition. One last concern is that bone meal is frequently used on items such as flowering bulbs, which Petunia may decide to eat as well. Yummy. But many flower bulbs are toxic to pets. You now have “co-toxicity.” That’s two problems, instead of one. Please identify any plants or bulbs Petunia may have eaten along with the bone meal, so we can treat accordingly.

On to weed killers, technically called herbicides. The No. 1 product sold and used worldwide is our old friend Roundup, which along with products such as Rodeo and Weed-Out, as well as many others, all have the active ingredient glyphosate — “a broad-spectrum, nonselective herbicide used to control problem grasses, broad-leaved weeds, woody plants, and sedges.” Now, I’m not going to talk about whether a perfect lawn is worth the price of pouring herbicides all over the earth. I’m just going to address what it can do to Petunia and Pansy. The good news is that glyphosate works by inhibiting a specific step of a plant’s metabolic pathway, a pathway not found in animals. In other words, it’s not so dangerous for pets. (For the planet as a whole, that’s a different story … but I wasn’t going to talk about that.) The bad news is that glyphosates are usually mixed with surfactants that help the product adhere and penetrate the plant. When pets ingest these products, it is the surfactants that may cause problems.

Most cases of glyphosate exposure occur when Pansy and Petunia run through grass sprayed with ready-to-use or appropriately diluted product. There is little risk of toxicity in such cases. Bathe Petunia with mild dish soap. Rinse her mouth with tap water. If it got in her eyes, flush gently with warm water. Very rarely a dog will drink a large volume out of a bucket, or chew up and ingest a bottle of concentrate. Clinical signs usually include drooling, vomiting, and diarrhea, sometimes bloody. There are rare reports of cats developing respiratory distress when exposed. Always check that package label carefully. Some products contain more than one herbicide. When in doubt? Try an animal toxicology hotline. There are several, including Pet Poison Hotline at 800-213-6680, and ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at 888-426-4435. These services can help determine whether you can manage the exposure at home or if you need to … call … your … veterinarian.

Finally, a word about snails and slugs. If you have pets, I strongly advise against using commercial snail and slug baits. Many contain metaldehyde. This stuff is highly toxic even in very low doses, and there is no antidote. Toxicologists call it a “shake and bake” poison because ingestion causes extreme tremors and life-threatening elevations in body temperature. Petunia may start with panting, drooling, anxiety, vomiting, and diarrhea. She may exhibit temporary blindness and eventually go into liver failure, if she lives that long. Pansy the pussycat may develop trouble breathing and neurological signs. Treatment must be immediate and prolonged. If they survive the first 24 hours, then prognosis improves, but this is nasty stuff. Some companies have switched from metaldehyde baits to iron phosphate, which they may label as “pet safe” or “natural,” but “pet safe” does not mean nontoxic. Although less lethal than metaldehyde, the incidence of iron phosphate toxicity in pets has increased dramatically in recent years. I found a website suggesting truly natural ways to try to control these slimy slugs. Nutshells. Coffee grounds. Beer traps. Grapefruit. It all else fails, pick them off by hand. Just please don’t use metaldehyde. Now I have to go put those flowers into the flowerboxes. I can hear them calling. The marigolds are particularly annoyed.