Get Your Pet-Friendly Garden Ready

Create a beautiful setting that's safe for birds and butterflies, cats and dogs.

small dog on a garden bench
Be sure to double check if the plants you're adding to your garden are toxic to dogs. While some dogs stay out of the plants, others may munch on anything they feel like, which could lead to a trip to the vet's office. Dora Zett/Shutterstock

Deborah Harrison is preparing for a feeding frenzy.

When I called to talk about gardening recently, she was hanging a bat house in her yard. In addition to their powers of pollination, bats make summers more tolerable by feasting on bugs. According to Bat Conservation International, one brown bat can eat up to 1,000 mosquitoes in an hour. (Harrison expects a long, bug-filled summer this year.)

“We didn’t have enough real cold, sustained temperatures, and that’s what kills insect larvae,” says Harrison, general manager of Habersham Gardens in Atlanta. “Nothing reduced the insect population, so they are all going to hatch and it is going to be wild.”

While I’m not ready to build an enclosure and welcome bats to my backyard, birds and butterflies provide welcome entertainment for my dog Lulu. Once flowers start blooming, she spends hours staring out the back window. I’m stepping up my game this year so that she has plenty of eye candy later this year. Prepare your lawn — and your pets — for spring and summer.

Got mulch?

Rake fallen leaves, twigs and old mulch, then bypass the compost bin and simply toss it. “That’s where insects lay their eggs,” Harrison says. “Start fresh with new mulch.”

In addition to being aesthetically pleasing, mulch protects roots and keeps plants hydrated. Pine straw gets the job done, but Harrison says dark walnut hardwood mulch has become popular among gardeners.

“It is the most beautiful, deep rich, very dark brown and it sets up plants like nothing you have ever seen,” she says. “It is beautiful.”

As you apply that fresh layer of lawn cover, be sure to monitor any pets playing outdoors. Parasites tend to thrive in mulch, and consuming large chunks of wood can cause blockages, says Dr. Arhonda Johnson, owner of The Ark Animal Hospital in Atlanta. Pet owners also should avoid sweet-smelling cocoa mulch, which is toxic to cats and dogs. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (, side effects include diarrhea and vomiting.

Do your homework

Visit your local garden center and learn about plants that thrive in your state. Native plants require less upkeep and help conserve valuable resources. Pet owners with green thumbs should refine their list by perusing the ASPCA list of toxic and nontoxic plants. Many popular plants such as azaleas, Easter lilies, rhododendron and sago palms are hazardous to pets. In a previous column, I share the ASPCA’s list of extremely toxic plants for cats and dogs.

Apply the same caution when shopping for fertilizer and pesticides, which are particularly dangerous for pets. Accidental ingestion of insecticides led to the second highest volume of calls to the ASPCA Poison Control Center last year.

“If you water your lawn, make sure pets don’t walk out on the lawn while that chemical is on there,” Johnson says. “They will lick paws and ingest the poison. If they do go out, wipe their feet.”

Want to attract wildlife? Create a welcoming environment

Harrison suggests adding shady areas so birds, bunnies, and pets can beat the heat. A water feature also helps attract wildlife.

“If you don’t have a fountain in your garden, at least place a bird bath on the ground so rabbits and other creatures can have a water source,” she says. “Without water, there’s no life for very long.”

Butterflies add another beautiful element to gardens, but you need to cultivate caterpillars first. Harrison notes that caterpillars feast on very specific host plants that often differ from what butterflies prefer.

“Without them, the butterfly caterpillar can’t turn into a butterfly,” she says. “Monarch butterfly larvae need to have milkweed, which most people don’t plant. You can import monarchs, but they won’t lay eggs because there’s nothing for their progeny to eat.”

Harrison says most butterflies will flock to the appropriately named butterfly bush, which is considered a low-maintenance plant. She adds that butterflies prefer blooming plants that produce nectar, and are particularly attracted to tiny blooms on plants like lantanas. Butterflies also need landing spots to dry their wings, so consider adding a boulder or garden ornament.

Want to attract hummingbirds? They prefer tubular plants such as honeysuckle or trumpet vine — and plenty of water. Add a hummingbird feeder, and Harrison says the birds will return year after year. A simple syrup mixture — four parts water to one part sugar — will keep them buzzing along happily.

Protect pets

There will be no shortage of bugs this spring and summer, so keep pets on preventatives that protect them from fleas, ticks and deadly heartworm parasites. Johnson is a fan of Trifexis, which tackles fleas, heartworm and intestinal parasites with one chewable tablet.

“It’s the newest thing on the market and it’s flying off the shelf,” she says. “People need to remember to stay on it all year.”

For cats, Johnson recommends a topical medication called Revolution that fights fleas, ear mites, heartworm, hookworm and roundworm. In addition to cutting costs, all-in-one formulations save time and make it a little easier to remember that regular dosage.

Once allergy season kicks in, watch for signs that pets may be struggling with the high pollen count. After long walks, wipe paws with a wet towel or leave your shoes at the door to avoid tracking pollen inside.

Why Pets Matter to Treehugger

At Treehugger, we are advocates of animal welfare, including our pets and other domestic animals. The better we understand our dogs, the better we can support and protect their wellbeing. We hope our readers will adopt rescue pets instead of shopping from breeders or pet stores, and will also consider supporting local animal shelters.