5 Pet-Friendly Ways to Eliminate Weeds From Your Yard

Want to keep unwanted plants in check without harming your furry family members? Check out these pet-safe methods.

When weeds begin to feel like a losing battle, you may be tempted to resort to potent weed killers. Unfortunately, many of the chemicals sold to combat pesky plants can harm your pets if not used carefully. Even "eco-friendly" or natural herbicides are capable of causing injury when used improperly. Add to that a dog that likes to dig and roll in your lawn or garden, and you could have a real risk for harmful effects.

In fact, even just traipsing through the grass can pose a threat, since your furry friends can pick up herbicides and other pesticides when walking through the yard. Those chemicals transfer to their paws and fur, which they may then inadvertently ingest while grooming themselves.

So are you doomed to a weedy yard if you have pets? Not necessarily. There are some weed killers safe for dogs and cats, as well as lawn-care strategies that can cut down on leafy invaders without threatening the health of your animals. Here's what you need to know to keep your pets safe while warding off weeds.

Dog sitting on sidewalk near flowers
Rachel McGinn

Before you waste time, effort, and money on ineffective products or chemicals that put your pet at risk, evaluate your personal tolerance for weeds. Can you live with a light smattering of them? The truth is, a few lawn weeds aren't problematic—as long as you work to keep the grass healthy, the unwanted plants aren't likely to proliferate out-of-control. Mulching garden beds regularly will keep them from taking over ornamental plantings. If you want your lawn and garden to be totally weed-free, then you'll need to think carefully about what methods or chemicals to use in your yard.

Digging up plants with shovel
Jacob Fox

1. Weeding by Hand

The most effective way to eradicate lawn and garden weeds is—and probably always will be—removing them by hand. This can be tedious work, but it's the best way to ensure you eliminate the root of the plant. (Both toxic and non-toxic weed killers can leave roots behind to regenerate; dandelions have especially long roots.)

There are lots of handy weeding tools on the market that speed up the process, so if your problem is sporadic weeds, this is a fairly surefire way to handle them without using chemicals. It's best to think of hand-weeding as an ongoing practice, and it's most effective when begun in spring. In garden beds, weed seedlings can be eradicated by hoeing.

The other primary benefit of weeding by hand is that you can be selective—only the plants that you want to kill will be affected. Most environmentally-friendly herbicides and weed-killing methods are not selective; they'll kill or damage any plant they touch.

placing mulch around base of tree
Brie Passano

2. Smothering Weeds

Like any plant, weeds need sunlight to thrive. So if you block their access to light, they'll die. The easiest way to suffocate them: Lay down a thick layer (3 to 5 inches) of organic mulch, such as wood chips or pine needles. (Avoid cocoa mulch, which is toxic to dogs if eaten.) The mulch allows water and air through but keeps sunlight out. Your soil will stay healthy; small weeds and seeds hidden under the mulch won't survive.

When you're creating a new garden, opaque plastic sheeting, layers of cardboard, or carpet scraps can be laid over the area where you want to kill all plants. Leave the layers in place for about 6 weeks during the growing season to smother weeds effectively. Avoid tilling the soil afterward to prevent buried weed seeds from germinating.

3. Applying Horticultural Vinegar

In its concentrated form, vinegar can kill young, tender plants. Keep in mind that horticultural vinegar is a non-selective killer, meaning it will damage any plant it touches. Also be aware that it is a strong acid, so avoid contact with your skin, eyes, or nose. (Make sure to wear garden gloves!) Read and follow label directions carefully, and keep your pets off of treated areas until the vinegar dries.

This method is especially effective for cracks in sidewalks or driveways. But don't be discouraged if the first application doesn't do the job: Since horticultural vinegar only damages the plant tissue it touches, established weeds may not die until you've sprayed them a few times.

Although vinegar sounds like an inexpensive solution, the concentrated type that kills weeds can be as expensive as standard commercial herbicides.

4. Burning or Boiling Weeds

If occasional weeds are your problem—think pesky sprouts that pop up between patio pavers or cracks in the driveway—try burning them with a welding torch or scalding them with boiling water. Just be careful not to injure yourself in the process! Note that these methods won't kill the roots of established weeds and may have to be repeated several times over the summer.

5. Other Natural or Organic Options

There are several products sold in stores that use concentrated essential oils, soaps, or other natural ingredients. Very few of them are selective weed killers, so they'll damage anything they touch; they also have different levels of effectiveness.

Corn gluten meal showed initial promise as a pre-emergent herbicide, but there are downsides: The timing of application (in spring before weeds emerge) is critical, since it doesn't affect established weeds. The upshot is that it's a pet-safe weed killer.

Some products do work but take days to show results, and many require repeated applications. Read and follow label directions carefully, don't expect instant or permanent results, and keep pets away from newly-treated areas according to the product's instructions. Although a product may claim to be made of natural ingredients, it can still potentially irritate your skin, eyes, or nose.

Person holding small bowl of salt
Kate Sears

What Not to Use

Some household products suggested for killing weeds, such as salt, borax, or sugar, are not only ineffective, but they can damage the soil. For example, borax will inhibit growth of desirable plants, and it's also illegal to apply it to the soil in many areas. Salt can likewise cause a serious imbalance in soil chemistry. Sugar attracts pests of all kinds, and it might even entice your pets or wildlife to eat something they shouldn't.

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