One of suburbia’s dubious delights involves the long vistas of manicured lawns through which my neighbors seemingly compete on the basis of their greenness and unbroken blandness. Which inevitably means chemicals: pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and parasite-killers.

Even if your lawn is free of such nasties, your nearest neighbors’ likely aren’t. So whether you spray or not, your outdoor-frequenting pets will almost certainly be exposed––that is, if your neighborhood is anything like mine.

But how big a deal is it really?

Yesterday’s call from a panicked relative demonstrated the high degree of confusion that accompanies the use of lawn chemicals and their potential toxicity. His lawn had just been inadvertently sprayed and he was now afraid to let his dogs out.

My response?

"Most commercial lawn care chemicals have been used for years around pets. As long as you’re using a licensed lawn care specialist or a similarly credentialed pesticide company, the party line holds that these chemicals are very likely to be safe," I parroted. Dissatisfied with my own answer, I searched for more recent recommendations. Here's what I found.

Nothing new at the ASPCA’s Poison Control (it's the veterinary mantra on the subject):

Make sure your pets do not go on lawns or in gardens treated with fertilizers, herbicides or insecticides until the time listed on the label by the manufacturer. [Usually within the half hour allowed for drying time.] If you are uncertain about the usage of any product, contact the manufacturer for clarification before using it. Always store pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides in areas that are inaccessible to your pets - read the label carefully for proper usage and storage instructions.

The most serious problems resulting from fertilizer ingestion in pets are usually due to the presence of heavy metals such as iron. Ingestion of large amounts of fertilizer could cause severe gastric upset and possibly gastrointestinal obstruction.

The most dangerous forms of pesticides include: snail bait containing metaldehyde, fly bait containing methomyl, systemic insecticides containing disyston or disulfoton, zinc phosphide containing mole or gopher bait and most forms of rat poisons. When using pesticides place the products in areas that are totally inaccessible to your companion animals. Always store pesticides in secured areas and according to label directions.

That’s the short-term view, anyway. But not everyone’s convinced this is the only way to look at the issue of lawn chemicals and pets. In Beyond Pesticides, a serious website dedicated to the furtherance of chemical-free living, here’s what I found:

Numerous studies have documented the risk of pesticides to pets over the years. A 1991 National Cancer Institute study, finds that dogs whose owners’ lawns were treated with 2,4-D, four or more times per year, are twice as likely to contract canine malignant lymphoma than dogs whose owners do not use the herbicide. Exposure to herbicide-treated lawns and gardens increases the risk of bladder cancer by four to seven times in Scottish Terriers, according to a study by Purdue University veterinary researchers published in the April 15, 2004 issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Research published in the December 1988 issue of Preventive Veterinary Medicine links hyperthyroidism in cats to flea powders and sprays, lawn pesticides and canned cat food. Allethrin, a common ingredient in home mosquito products (coils, mats, oils and sprays) and other bug sprays, has been linked to liver problems in dogs, according to a 1989 study by the World Health Organization. The 1989 edition W.C. Campbell Toxicology textbook reports that chronic exposure to abamectin, an insecticide often used by homeowners on fire ants can affect the nervous system of dogs and cause symptoms such as pupil dilation, lethargy, and tremors...

...and it goes on.

The citations are for real. And so’s the danger, apparently. Problem is, we haven’t yet gotten good at reporting all these cases––much less at understanding the toxic principles involved. Though the ASPCA takes in a percentage of this data whenever pet owners and veterinarians fill out a case report, its cache of stats by no means offers a complete rendering of the issues––not even those it specializes in: acute exposure.

And the EPA? Puh-lease. It’s gotten better at handling pet issues. But it’s by no means given us any reason to breathe a sigh of relief whenever it informs us of a product’s safety record.

That’s why the AVMA has taken on the task of attempting to organize pesticide-specific poisonings, ASPCA-style, but without the $60 hurdle (which includes clinical assistance with each case). In the wake of greater pesticide awareness (finally!) a new section of its website was set up to tackle the issue of veterinary underreporting. Sure, it’s the EPA’s job...but if they’re not going to do it...

In the meantime I’m urging that all my clients dispense with the chemicals, adopt a native plant landscape and take up chicken farming. Aside from introducing me to the sweet mysteries of diatomaceous earth and feeding my family, my hens take care of the whole spectrum of plant care, from fertilization to weed, insect and parasite control (even if they do occasionally dig like beagles in search of a dustbowl bath).

What do you say? Chickens, anyone? Sure beats wondering whether your lawn chemicals are slowly killing your pets.

 Image: Daniesq / via Flickr