May 12 2014

Choosing a Mulch for Pet Owners

Dr. Jacqueline Nicholson

By Jacqueline Nicholson, DVM

Warmer weather is approaching and so is the start of our garden activities – tending the flower beds, yard cleanup, playing outside. If you’re a pet owner then you know that most of our furry friends like to be wherever we are and, if left out in the yard and not supervised after we go back inside, they can start their own garden activities that can potentially get them in medical trouble.

Here are some ideas and important guidelines to help you not only have a healthy garden, but to also keep your pets safe.  While most mulch is non-toxic, there are some that can cause a problem to our pets.

Slider, King of the Mulch Pile

Slider, King of the Mulch Pile

Potential Hazards:

  1. Cocoa mulch, cocoa shell mulch, cocoa bean shell mulch, and cocoa bean hull mulch is the shell of the cocoa bean.  Most people know that chocolate is toxic to dogs.  Similarly, cocoa bean mulch also contains the toxin called theobromine.  This chemical can cause cardiac arrythmias (irregular heart rhythms), increased heart rates, hyperactivity, vomiting, diarrhea, as well as seizures in our pets.  Death can sometimes occur if large quantities are ingested.  People like cocoa mulch because of its odor and color – but there are much safer alternatives.
  2. Rocks can also be used as mulch – but keep in mind that some dogs like to eat rocks – which can sometimes cause gastrointestinal obstructions.  Rocks also do not retain moisture like the various wood mulches.  If you choose to use rocks for mulching, use smooth, round rocks instead of jagged rocks to prevent injury to your pet’s feet.

Safer Alternatives:

  1. Rubber mulch is made from recycled tires, so it’s environmentally friendly.  It looks like wood and frees up space in landfills.  It can last 5-10 years depending on sun exposure.
  2. Leaves are a great choice for mulching.  Not only are they readily available, but they also add nutrients, texture, and cover protection to any garden.  As long as there were no chemicals applied to them, leaves are safe for pets.
  3. Pine needles can also be used as mulch.  They have a natural appearance and help keep weeds down.  However, while pine is non-toxic, if pine needles are ingested they can poke into the stomach lining of your pet.
  4. Natural, untreated wood is better than dyed wood mulch.  While the dyed wood is considered non-toxic, the dye can leach into the soil.  Additionally, it fades faster than natural wood and requires much more maintenance than untreated wood.
  5. Cedar mulch is not toxic to dogs. The main benefit of using cedar mulch is its reputation as an insect repellent. This is due to its main oil compound, plicatic acid. Plicatic acid has also been shown to have some SHORT LIVED flea repellent benefits. If mice and other yard pests bring in fleas, cedar won’t be much help after a couple of months. Cedar mulch is a nice-smelling, attractive option with few benefits for dogs. However, if you have a dog that likes to dig and chew – ANY mulch may cause vomiting and diarrhea if too much is ingested.  If the cedar mulch is too chunky – gastrointestinal obstructions can result. In addition, the chunkier mulches are more attractive for dogs to use for digging and going to the bathroom. If you like cedar mulch, be sure to use a finely shredded variety.
Tiger Enjoying a Warm Bed of Mulch

Tiger Enjoying a Warm Bed of Mulch

Some suggestions that may help to prevent pets from digging include: spraying the mulch with garlic water or bitter apple spray OR laying down metal mesh at the soil level of the garden (under the mulch).

If you have any questions about the safety of the mulch you’re using and the effect it may have on your pets, it’s always best to ask your veterinarian.  Pine and cedar are good alternatives to cocoa bean mulch.  However, keep in mind that dogs can choke on many types of mulch and should always be supervised.   Some dogs and cats may also be allergic to various types of mulch.  Some potential symptoms of allergic reaction include skin rash, wheezing, excessive itching, hives, etc.  If you think your pet is having an allergic reaction from any source, please contact your veterinarian immediately.

Dr. Nicholson with Zurry

Dr. Nicholson with Zurry

Dr. Nicholson graduated from the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2007. She was born in New York City and raised in northern New Jersey. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Alfred University and completed a post-Baccalaureate / Pre-Veterinary Program at Rutgers University.

Over the last nine years, Dr. Nicholson has gained an extensive amount of experience at emergency and specialist hospitals in both New York and New Jersey – including The Animal Medical Center in New York City. After graduation, she completed a one year rotating internship program at Garden State Veterinary Specialists where she was exposed to a wide range of specialty fields including Emergency Medicine, Surgery, Internal Medicine, Oncology, Ophthalmology, Dermatology and Neurology. This experience has been invaluable to both our team and our clients.

Dr. Nicholson’s special interests include feline behavior, oncology, and canine and feline soft tissue surgery.


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