Adding a compost pile to your yard is a great way to reduce your household waste while supporting your gardening efforts. But, for dog parents, that compost heap could introduce some serious risks for your best friend. While composting is environmentally friendly, it’s not necessarily dog friendly.
If your dog ate compost, either from the compost pile itself or from your garden, it could be fatal.
The good news is that you can live an environmentally friendly lifestyle while keeping your furry friend safe. The first step in creating a pet-safe compost pile is to familiarize yourself with the risks of using compost and fertilizer around your yard.
Compost Pile Safety Risks for Dogs
Most dog parents are familiar with the challenges associated with keeping your dog from eating something that they shouldn’t, especially if you have a puppy in your home. We have all heard the warnings about keeping toxic foods out of reach and securing garbage bins to prevent your dog from unauthorized snacking, but those aren’t the only two places that your dog can be tempted by human food.
Your compost bin is full of “tasty” morsels in the eyes of a dog. The combination of food waste thrown in your household compost looks like a waiting buffet to your pup!
There are many risks lurking in your compost bin. Spoiled foods and fats from your food waste can cause digestive problems in your dog, including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. There may also be food particles that are large enough to create a choking hazard. As the waste in your compost breaks down, the pile will grow bacteria, mold, and fungi. These elements are necessary for the composting process, but they can be very dangerous for your pup.
In addition to the compost pile itself, both commercial and homemade fertilizer products are toxic to dogs. Dogs that have ingested fertilizer can experience a wide variety of symptoms ranging from mild nausea to seizures and difficulty breathing.
If you suspect that your dog ate compost, fertilizer, or moldy garbage, you should call the Pet Poison Helpline immediately. Their veterinary professionals are available 24/7 by calling 1-800-213-6680.
Try to provide as much information as possible. This will help them determine how great the risk is and whether your dog needs to be seen by a veterinarian. The sooner you seek medical care, the better the chance that your pet can be treated effectively.
Mold Poisoning Symptoms in Dogs
As organic materials like grass clippings, leaves, and food waste break down and decompose, mold will develop. If you’re guilty of leaving a container of leftovers in the refrigerator a little too long, then you have already seen this firsthand. This mold can produce compounds called mycotoxins.
Some mycotoxins are well-known as helpful substances, including penicillin, while others are highly toxic and potentially life-threatening. Tremorgenic mycotoxins are a specific type of fungus that is often found in kitchen scraps and rotting food.
Common mold poisoning symptoms in dogs include:
- Foaming at the mouth
- Excessive panting and/or drooling
- Agitation or hypersensitivity
- Loss of coordination
- Difficulty walking or standing
If your dog is experiencing mold poisoning, there is no cure or antidote. Instead, your veterinarian will help to address the symptoms and offer supportive care while your dog passes the toxins.
They may induce vomiting if it is addressed early enough. If they have moved further into the digestive system, your vet may choose to provide activated charcoal to bind to the toxins and help pass them through your dog’s system with as little damage as possible. They can also provide intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration and help flush the toxins out of the bloodstream.
The earlier that treatment begins, the better your dog’s chances. If you suspect that your dog ate compost, don’t wait to see signs and symptoms of poisoning. Seek help as soon as possible.
Symptoms of Fertilizer Poisoning in Dogs
Fertilizers are soil amendments with a variety of key nutrients. More specifically, fertilizers are largely formulated with a focus on the “Big 3”: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. They are used to boost the quality of the soil, providing the nutrition that plants need to grow and thrive in your garden. Additionally, they may contain harmful chemicals such as pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides.
While these nutrients are necessary for plant growth, they can be highly toxic for your dog. This includes both from physical contact with the concentrated products or from ingestion. Exposure to fertilizer can cause burning, redness, or skin irritation on your dog’s paws, face, or any other area where the skin was in direct contact.
In addition to a contact reaction, the common symptoms of fertilizer poisoning in dogs include:
- Excessive drooling
- Hunching or other posture changes due to abdominal pain
- Blue or brown tinted gums
- Irritation in the mouth or eyes
- Lack of coordination
- Difficulty breathing
Commercial fertilizer products cannot be absorbed easily in your dog’s digestive system. This is beneficial on one hand, as it reduces how much of the toxin will enter your dog’s blood. On the other hand, it can cause constipation, impaction, or ultimately, a serious bowel obstruction when ingested in large quantities.
Bags of fertilizer that have been left open or exposed to air for any extended length of time will eventually mold, producing mycotoxins and creating a risk for mold poisoning.
If you have any reason to suspect that your dog has been exposed to fertilizer, you should call the Pet Poison Helpline or your veterinarian as soon as possible. As commercial fertilizers are present in high concentrations, a toxic dose is surprisingly small. For a 20 lb dog, even just a teaspoon of fertilizer could be life-threatening.
Tips for a Pet-Safe Compost Pile
With all these concerns, should you pass on composting? Don’t give up just yet. Dog parents can embrace the benefits of composting with a little advance preparation and prevention. If you’re looking to create a dog friendly compost set-up, here are a few tips to get you started…
Keep Compost Bins Out of Reach
The first thing that you should do to prevent your dog from getting into your compost is to keep any compost bins out of your dog’s reach. Bins that are indoors to collect kitchen waste should be stored in a cupboard with a secure door.
For outside compost bins, consider placing them in an area that your dog is unable to access. You could also build a fence or barrier around the bin to create a safe zone.
Ensure All Compost Bins Have a Secure Lid
You may be tempted to create a compost pile that is open on the top for easy access. The same can be said for having an easy to open lid for your kitchen compost bin. Keep in mind that a lid (or absence thereof) that makes access easy for you will also make access easy for your dog.
Avoid Dairy and Animal Products
As they break down, animal products encourage the growth of dangerous bacteria above and beyond the risks present in composting plant matter. This includes Bacillus and Salmonella. Not only is this dangerous for your dog, but it could lead to illness among human family members from handling the lid of your compost bin or tools used to turn the compost.
To create a pet-friendly (and people-friendly) compost pile, restrict your waste to plant-based matter such as fruit and vegetable waste, grass clippings, and leaves.
Skip Adding Items That Are Toxic to Dogs
When deciding which kitchen scraps to add to your compost pile, avoid adding foods that are known to be toxic to dogs. This includes onions, garlic, chives, coffee grounds, avocado, macadamia nuts, and anything with chocolate. By avoiding placing any of these items into your compost pile, you’ll reduce the risk of serious illness if your dog does get into the compost at some point.
On the same note, pay careful attention to which garden plants you are adding to the compost pile. There are several common gardening plants that are toxic to your dog including daffodils, tulips, and hydrangeas.
Be Mindful When Using Compost
Finally, when it comes time to use the nutrient-rich product of your compost pile, keep your dog’s safety in mind. There is still a risk of mold spores and other toxins in the compost matter. When mixing this material into your garden, restrict your dog’s access to the garden area with a temporary fence or barrier.
The decision to embrace composting is a great one – reducing the amount of waste filling our landfills and minimizing your impact on the environment. However, as dog parents, we must be careful to put the necessary safety measures in place to ensure that the whole family is safe. Set up a dog-safe compost pile and always keep your eyes open for signs of illness.
Early identification and treatment of both mold poisoning and fertilizer poisoning can make all the difference!
Have you ever been in the position where your dog ate compost or fertilizer, or you worried that they may be able to? If so, what steps have you taken to create a dog-safe compost pile?
About the Author: Britt Kascjak is a proud pet mom, sharing her heart (and her home) with her “pack” which includes her husband John, their 3 dogs – Daviana, Indiana, and Lucifer – and their 2 cats – Pippen and Jinx. She has been active in the animal rescue community for over 15 years, volunteering, fostering and advocating for organizations across Canada and the US. In her free time, she enjoys traveling around the country camping, hiking, and canoeing with her pets.