During the Dog Lovers Show 2017 in Sydney, Dr Chris Brown gave an informative and entertaining talk on the KONG stage about how to make a safe, dog-friendly backyard.

Dr Chris Brown shared some great tips and myths about toxic plants to avoid, allergies, why dogs love digging, how spiders, bees, and wasps affect pets, snails & slugs, and the mysterious light-coloured patch on your lawn and more.  If you missed Dr Chris Brown’s talk, here’s what he had to say about how to make a safe, dog-friendly backyard.

Key points from Dr Chris Brown’s guide on a safe, dog-friendly backyard

  • The size of your backyard doesn’t really matter because it’s not so much how much space you have; it’s what you do with your time with your pets
  • A lot of plants aren’t good for them. I see the most issues with Brunfelsia, also known as Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow because dogs love the berries
  • Dogs who lick their feet. Most of the time that’s not anxiety doing that, it’s because they’ve been walking on the grass, and crushing the sap between their toes, and that sap causes an irritation, and they start to lick at their feet as a result of that
  • So if a bulb looks like a ball, or if you pick it up in the park and then use it as a stick, then just by chewing on it your dog can get that sap out of it and get into issues there
  • A spider bite, even from a funnel-web, is unlikely to cause any problems to a dog, in fact, a dog can handle a hundred times the lethal dose of venom from a funnel-web without an issue but snakes are a different matter
  • Snails and slugs can carry a little parasite called Lungworm. If eaten by a dog, the parasite migrates up into the spinal cord and try to get into their brain. It can cause paralysis and be fatal.

Dr Chris Brown’s guide for a safe, dog-friendly backyard

I’m going to talk about how to make the best dog-friendly backyard you can have. And this still applies even if you don’t have a backyard, because it’ll be relevant when you go to the park, or when you’re going down the footpath to the park, or you’re going for a little excursion with your dog. For us, our backyards—they’re a nice little escape for us. They’re where we can forget about the stresses of the world. But for our pets, our backyards—for most of the time, anyway—are their world. It’s where they spend so much of their time.

Size of your backyard

The size of your backyard doesn’t really matter because it’s not so much how much space you have; it’s what you do with your time with your pets. Because—I’m sure you would agree—they would swap anything in the world for more time with you. You are the centre of their world; you are the one that gives them that reason to live, really. They love your attention; they love your affection; they love your approval. And I guess the challenge we face is that we can’t watch them the whole time, so we want to make sure that the time where we’re not able to supervise them entirely, we can make sure that they don’t get up to anything that’s potentially dangerous.

Poisonous plants

So, I get a lot of questions from people saying, how do I know if a plant in my garden is poisonous or toxic? The truth is, a lot of plants aren’t good for them. They’re not herbivores; they’re not goats—goats can eat pretty much anything. So if they do eat a plant that’s poisonous, they could get into trouble. But the majority of the time, you don’t need to worry. They’re selective; they’re smarter than you think. They can smell something and go, Oh, that doesn’t smell quite right; that smells like it could be poisonous, and they’ll avoid it. So it’s very rare for them to just experimentally start eating plants or any garden like they’re a cow. It doesn’t generally happen that way.

Dr Chris Brown's guide for a safe, dog-friendly backyard

Dr Chris Brown warns that dogs love these berries. Brunfelsia also known as Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. Photo: Philipp Weigell CC-BY-3.0

But there are a few plants that can lure them in. I think it’s more of a passing interest for them. And the one I see around Sydney that I see the most issues with. It’s called Brunfelsia or known as Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. It’s a flowering plant. In about a month (early September) it’ll go up to flowering but in the meantime, it just looks like another green bush, if you like. But in about September, it starts getting those multi-coloured flowers and then it gets those little berries on it, and dogs love the berries. And out of nowhere, after never having interest, they’ll just decide to feast on these berries and they’ll get quite sick. And we probably see a couple of these dogs each year, so that’s one to look out for.

Others to watch out for are Lantana, Oleander… but bulbs are an interesting one: daffodils, jonquils, those little plants you grow from a bulb… If you put that in the ground, now, that’ll grow into a daffodil. It kind of looks like an onion—doesn’t smell the same. But it’s a funny thing; if you have those around the house, a dog will look at those, and if you drop one or if one goes missing, it bounces around and becomes quite interesting to pick up and chew and play with and throw up in the air and have a bit of an adventure with. And they’re actually quite toxic if you start chewing on them. So, just look at something, and just realize that while it may not lure them in initially, it’s all how they use it. So if it looks like a ball, or if you pick it up in the park and then use it as a stick, then just by chewing on the stick they can get that sap out of it and they can get into issues there. But the majority of the time, they will self-limit themselves and not eat things they shouldn’t.

Why your dog licks their feet

The next thing is allergies. Anyone have a dog that licks their feet a lot? Yep? Almost looks like they’re chewing their fingernails—like they’re anxious, like they’re worried about the world. Well, most of the time that’s not anxiety doing that. Most of the time, they’ve been walking on the grass, and they’ve been crushing the sap between their toes, and that sap causes an irritation, and they start to lick at their feet as a result of that. The classic one—look in the corner of your yard, and there’s a weed called Wandering Jew, and it’s like a lush weed—tends to hang out in the dead corners of your backyard. On the hot days of summer—they’re only a few months away—pets will go and lie in there because it’s cool. When they lie in there, they’ll crush the sap of the weed against their belly, and the belly is a special place because it doesn’t have hair, and so the weed comes into direct contact with their belly skin, and we see quite a lot of contact allergies from that weed. And also, other weeds and grasses—if they’re walking through the park, they might get home, and you might notice them licking their feet a lot, and that’s usually because of allergies to the grass. If you have a dog that does that a lot, you can try just for a few days to ease it, walking them on the concrete parts, so don’t actually go onto the grass. Or, if they’re mad for the grass, when you get home, just either dip their feet into a little bucket or cat litter tray filled with water—that works well—or just avoid walking them when the grass is wet because the wetness, the moisture, the dew actually dissolves a lot of the allergens, and then helps the allergens get through the skin and cause that irritation.

The mysterious light-coloured patch on the lawn

The old lawn. I’m sure a few of you pride yourselves on having a good lawn. And if you’ve ever seen this arrive—this mysterious light-coloured patch appears in the middle of the lawn, and the dog looks at you, and you look at the dog, and you think, Okay. It was one of the two of us. And it wasn’t me. That is a urine burn in the lawn. If you have a male dog, this never happens. You know why? It’s because they cock their leg. They cock their leg against trees. It’s only female dogs, generally, that do this, because they generally wee in the middle of a lawn or the middle of a blank space. Obviously, puppies will do this as well. So, how do you avoid it? Well, you’ve got to understand why it happens. It’s basically because of too much nitrogen in their wee. Nitrogen is a fertilizer, but too much fertilizer will actually do this. If you were to look at that lawn again in three months’ time, that will be the greenest part of the lawn, where that wee burn is. So it’s a temporary burn. It will actually come back stronger. How do you avoid it? Make sure your pets drink a bit more water—dilutes out the nitrogen in their wee. Sometimes if you’re feeding them a lot of meat, that means extra nitrogen, so you’ve got to watch that as well. You can water your lawn more because the water actually dilutes out that temporary toxin to the lawn. Or you can use—there are a few products around, or the rocks you put inside water bottles, and they do seem to work pretty well.

The old water bottle on the lawn myth

Anyone, remember this? The old water bottle on the lawn? You don’t see it too much now—I only mention it now because it still makes me laugh. There used to be a thing to the people younger than probably thirty—there used to be a thing where they would put water bottles on their lawns in the belief that it stopped dogs from weeing on the lawn. And I love this because they did a study, and they found that lawns with plastic bottles on them not only looked ugly, but actually encouraged dogs to wee on them because it gave them something to wee against, so male dogs were having a go, female dogs were having a go. And it actually increased it. So don’t do that.

Spiders

Oh, this is one of my favourite things about dogs. This will blow your mind if you don’t know that about them already. Somebody did a study a couple of years ago. A lot of us are a bit frightened of spiders, of snakes, all those sorts of things. In the backyard, you probably never even know that they’re encountering them. They put that wet nose of theirs underneath bushes, they go exploring nose-first, and they come across things that they probably see, they probably smell, but you never do. I can tell you, a lot of people worry about spiders, especially in Sydney—we’ve got some pretty bad spiders. Funnel-webs, especially on that north shore there. Even a few redbacks are in. There’s a quirk in a dog’s body that’s very different to ours. We’re quite similar in many ways. A spider bite, even from a funnel-web, is unlikely to cause any problems to a dog. It’s only primates that are actually affected by funnel-web spider bites. So, humans, monkeys, gorillas—they are sensitive, but dogs aren’t. A dog can handle a hundred times the lethal dose of venom from a funnel-web without an issue. I’ve never seen an absolute guaranteed spider bite and a resulting sick dog. It just doesn’t happen. There’s some evidence that redback spiders can mildly affect dogs, but generally spiders you don’t really need to worry about. So rest easy there. Snakes are obviously very different. For those people who live on the outskirts and have to deal with snakes, it’s not an easy one and I sympathise with you—it’s a real challenge.

Bees and wasps

Has anyone seen the puffy face after a bee sting? A little quirk—if you ever come across your dog and all of a sudden they walk into the house and they look like their face is three times the size, chances are they’ve been stung by a bee. And even if they’re stung on the very tip of their back foot, most of the time you’ll see the swelling around their face. And they look quite comical. Provided they’re not having any breathing difficulties, which are rare—you’re afraid to take the Instagram shot and appreciate that this is just a rare event—we sometimes give them antihistamines. Usually, it just subsides over the course of a few hours. They feel the sting, but after that, they’re usually okay. We get the occasional one which is more sensitive and you need to give them something a bit more serious, but most of the time they’re all right. Ants, they’re anointed of the bite. There’s nothing that leads through to anything else in terms of more systemic reactions. Obviously, there’s that one in ten thousand dogs that are really allergic and have a bigger issue, but generally, spiders you don’t need to worry about, snakes you do, bees and wasps—puffy face, and ants—just the discomfort from the bites.

Why do dogs love to dig?

So, digging holes. If you thought the urine stain on the lawn was bad, this takes it to a new level. But why do they do it? To annoy you? To get back at you for having that weekend away without them? Sometimes. But most of the time, it’s boredom. They can dig, they’ve got claws to do it, and they have a great time doing it. And why wouldn’t you have a great time? You can send the dirt flying everywhere. But there are a couple other reasons. In winter, I see a lot of dogs that eat dirt. And they eat it to get extra enzymes, extra bacteria to help with their digestion, and also they eat it because it’s there. Just sometimes, you know, you shake your head and just go, I’m offering you food—good food—and you decide to eat dirt. It’s the joy of a dog. The other reason, in summer they’ll often dig a hole to lie in the keep cool. But a lot of the time, yeah, it’s just a hell of a lot of fun. And very rarely we see dogs that actually dig holes to do their business in, and then cover it up.

Snails and slugs

Okay, the final thing I wanted to talk about. You may be hearing more about this or you may not have heard about it at all: snails and slugs. And especially in winter, this becomes pretty relevant. If you ever notice slugs and snails crawling around your yard, especially coming into your garden, or even trying to have a bit of a cheeky feed on your dog’s food when they’re not looking—it used to be something we’d just think, Oh, it’s annoying, it unsavoury, no need to worry about it. But unfortunately, snails and slugs can carry a little parasite, and it comes from rats, so if you have any sort of rats anywhere nearby and snails and slugs, this whole process can kick into action. And the snails and slugs carry this little parasite. If a dog eats a snail or a slug, it goes into their body, and then the little larvae actually migrate, and they don’t migrate into the lungs, even though it’s a lungworm—they actually go into the spinal cord. It’ll go up into the spinal cord and it’ll try to get into the brain. And a lot of dogs we see all of a sudden become paralysed or develop a funny way of walking, and really struggle. It actually can be fatal.

You need to get on to it and recognise the disease very quickly, because if you actually give that dog a worm tablet when these little guys are migrating through their nervous system, it can actually make it more serious! So, speak to your vet if you notice all of a sudden your dog is having trouble walking and just seems not really itself.

Getting rid of snails and slugs

In terms of getting rid of the snails and the slugs—the immediate reaction would be to put snail bait everywhere. Try to avoid doing that, the reason being that the snail bait is potentially even more dangerous than the disease. So what I recommend is just picking them up and putting them into a bin so that they don’t come back. Someone showed the other day that if you throw a snail over the fence, even over two fences, it will come back to your yard. Trust me—I know some really weird research. I know some very obscure things. They’re homing, so snails and slugs will actually rehome back to where they came from. So just keep an eye on that. Coffee grounds are actually really good at keeping snails and slugs away. They’re bitter enough that dogs won’t eat them, but if a snail or slug tries to go around coffee grounds, they hate it and they’ll generally stay away.

All right. So that’s your guide to a safe, dog-friendly backyard. Obviously, a happy house is the best house of all, so if you can keep all of those things in mind—get your pets outdoors, get them exercising, give them plenty of love, and they’ll obviously be a lot happier as a result of that. It’s all about living longer, happier lives together with you. Hopefully, that’s been of some use.