It’s spring! It’s that time of year when many, including myself, get down and dirty with the gardening gloves, start pulling weeds, trim last year’s dead growth, and plant all kinds of wonderful new growing things.
Restarting efforts on lawn care is no different. It’s the time to start reseeding the grass and filling in some of those unsightly dead bare spots, so you and your family can enjoy a thick layer of springy grass.
It takes a lot of diligent work to care for a well-tended lawn. That’s why it can be really frustrating to realize your efforts are being foiled by your pooch’s (or possibly your neighbors’) eliminating behaviors.
Those areas of yellowing grass, or even outright dead patches are the bane of many a homeowner and dog lover. One of my neighbors even has a sign that reads “Keep off the Grass (dog pee is killing our lawn!)”
The problem of dog pee killing grass is well-known, but what about dog urine causes this to happen? And while it clearly leads to health problems for that beautiful green lawn, does this indicate there are health problems present for your furry friend too?
In this article, we’re going to review 3 properties about dog urine that can cause it to be toxic to grass. We’ll discuss what, if any, health problems may be present for a pup if his pee is killing the grass, and lastly we’ll discuss 5 tips to help address this issue.
What About Dog Urine is Toxic to Grass?
There are 3 main characteristics about dog pee that can be problematic for grass. These characteristics can be greatly influenced by a few things, so not every dog will have the exact same urine properties at the exact same time. However, if you’re seeing yellow grass or dead spots in the lawn where your pooch pees, it’s likely one or more of these is present.
Back to Bases (and Acids): pH
Just when you thought you could forget about basic middle school or high school chemistry, you’ll have to dust off some of those memories for just a moment. But don’t worry, we won’t get too technical.
pH is essentially how acidic or basic (alkaline) a substance is, correlating to a number on a scale from 0-14 with acidic substances having a lower number and alkaline substances have a higher number. Distilled water essentially has the most neutral pH at 7.0. Orange juice ranges from 3.0-4.0 while the acid in our stomachs is at about a 1.0 on the scale, which is why acid reflux can be so uncomfortable. Baking soda is at about a 9.0 while Chlorox bleach hangs around 13.0 and can be caustic and dangerous if ingested.
So essentially, any substance at the high or low end of the scale can be a problem, while substances right in the middle are the most neutral. Likewise, it’s best for many reasons for a pup’s pee to stay in the neutral area of 7.0-7.5.
Dog urine can typically range anywhere from 6.0 up to 8.5. Both acidic and alkaline urine can contribute more to formation of certain types of urinary crystals and stones as well as certain types of bacterial infections. But alkaline urine typically contributes the most to lawn trauma.
What lends to these pH differences? Diet has a fair part to play, and we’ll chat about this more in a little bit. But generally, diets extremely high in protein are often more acidic with a lower pH while less protein-rich diets can contribute to a higher pH. A dog’s breed and genetics may also play roles too.
Nitrogen: Too Much of a Good Thing?
Ever come across urine that’s been sitting for awhile? Perhaps from a urinary accident you simply didn’t find right away, or a litter box that was neglected for several days? That smell that makes your nostrils burn and your eyes water is ammonia. Nitrogen is a main component of ammonia as well as urea and uric acid, which are all excreted in urine.
Nitrogen products like these are the result of the break-down of both animal and plant-based dietary protein. Nitrogen is actually required by plants like grass to thrive, but there’s a very narrow window between what’s needed and a toxic level.
In higher amounts, nitrogenous waste products can be damaging to living substances. While the levels can be variable, all dogs have these waste products in their urine, just like we do, because we all require dietary protein that gets broken down by our bodies. Even diets lower in meat protein will derive protein from plant sources instead, so the break-down products are unavoidable.
Checking Pee Color: Concentration
Ever notice that after a heavy work-out, a long day at work outside, or even just a day when you didn’t really drink enough water, that your pee looks dark yellow? Conversely, perhaps you’ve noticed that when you keep up well with fluid intake and drink a lot of water, that your pee looks clear.
These differences in appearance of urine are related to what the concentration of your urine is. Dark yellow urine is more concentrated. The body is more dehydrated from your work-out or outdoor activities (or lack of water intake), so it’s trying to conserve more water. Your kidneys will save as much water as possible, while still releasing urinary waste products. The presence of these waste products with much less fluid makes your pee look dark yellow.
On the flip-side, when you drink a lot of water and your pee looks clear, it’s because the kidneys recognize that there’s an overabundance of water, so they release more of it. But since the waste products are diluted out in a larger volume of fluid, your pee looks clear.
If your pup has really concentrated urine, this means that per unit of volume of pee, there is a greater concentration of waste products present, like ammonia. This makes highly concentrated urine more damaging to grass.
There’s a certain level of urine concentration that denotes healthy kidney function, and having urine that is consistently too dilute can actually denote an underlying health problem. But having highly concentrated urine can also mean that more water intake needs to be happening, which we’ll chat about soon in the prevention tips.
If My Dog’s Pee is Killing Grass, Is There a Health Problem?
It’s a fair question to be sure, but the short answer is, not necessarily.
If you take two dogs, even two housemates that eat the same food and do the same things, their urine may still have different properties.
As mentioned in regards to nitrogen, all dogs will have some degree of nitrogenous waste products, as this is just a normal process by the body when it breaks down dietary protein, which everyone needs. The levels can vary from dog to dog, but the presence of these waste products alone can be problematic for grass.
An acidic or alkaline urine pH is not necessarily a problem in and of itself, but an acidic or alkaline state can contribute to certain other health problems like infections, urine crystals, bladder stones, and other things we’ve mentioned.
Urine concentration is similar. Concentrating urine is a normal function by the kidneys and actually indicates that they’re working normally. However, if urine is too concentrated, this might indicate a need for more regular water consumption.
How do you find out what your pup’s urine characteristics are looking like? The best way is to have your veterinarian look at or submit to a lab a urine sample, which is called a urinalysis. The basics of a urinalysis include assessing the pH, protein levels, concentration and a few other properties. It also typically includes looking at the sample under the microscope to look for crystals, bacteria, and other abnormalities.
Collecting all of this information and evaluating it together as a whole can paint a picture of whether or not a medical concern exists. For example, if a pup has a urine pH of 6.5 but there’s no crystals or signs of infection, urine concentration is normal and protein levels are low, there’s really no need for concern just because the urine pH is a little on the acidic side.
But, if the urine pH is 6.5, we see Calcium oxalate crystals, and a high urine concentration, your vet may ask some more historical questions about diet, water availability, any signs of urinary issues seen at home, and may make some recommendations.
And now that we’ve discussed some background, let’s go into some strategies to help manage this problem.
Five Tips to Help Prevent Dog Pee From Killing Your Grass
1. Help Your Lawn First
Before you can focus on preventing your lawn from being affected, it makes sense that you’ll want to fix up the damaged areas first.
You kind of have two choices here, depending on how badly your lawn is affected. If the grass is just starting to yellow or get thin in certain areas, you might be able to get away with applying a treatment to reduce the toxic level of urine waste products. It’s important to look for a natural product that uses enzymes to neutralize the salts excreted in urine that cause damage and to make sure it’s an approved product safe for use in dogs.
You can also use a product like Yellow to Green Lawn Spray that uses a natural dye to make urine-burned areas of lawn appear greener. Sure, it’s a band-aid of sorts, but it can help re-establish some of your lawn care pride while you work on re-establishing your lawn’s underlying health, which can take more time.
If you have really burned out, dead areas of grass, it may be best to dig those areas up and reseed them. If you do this, make sure to use seed for a grass which is more naturally resistant to the effects of urine. According to DoodyCalls, a nationwide pet waste management company, Ryegrass and Fescue are the most resistant to urine, while Kentucky Bluegrass and Bermuda are the most sensitive.
Some products out there are even a combination grass seed with the appropriate neutralizing enzymes, accomplishing two tasks in one.
To go that extra step to help choose the right type of grass or to see if the soil itself needs adjustment, you may be able to get a free sample soil test kit from your local state cooperative extension office. If not, you can purchase one at most local hardware stores or garden centers. By sending in a sample, you can get a report on what needs your soil may have.
2. Acidify the Urine
An alkaline urine pH is a top cause of urine’s toxicity to grass. A urinary acidifier is a dietary supplement that works to decrease the urine pH and make it either more neutral or slightly acidic. For example, dl-methionine, as found in Grass Be Green, is an amino acid that is actually required by the body, but when additionally supplemented, can lower the pH of your pup’s urine.
As mentioned before, diet can be a major contributing factor to urine pH. I also mentioned that diets higher in protein contribute to a lower pH. So you might ask if you couldn’t just feed your dog more protein? This is fair and possibly reasonable, but comes with some cautions.
Increasing dietary protein may not be appropriate or safe for every dog. Increasing one dietary component can alter the proportions of others and create an imbalance. Home-cooked diets thus need to be considered very carefully. When not formulated by a veterinary nutritionist, many home-cooked diets typically have at least one or more nutritional deficiencies.
Utilizing fresh, raw meat in diets is discouraged by most veterinarians because of the public health concerns for bacterial contamination risk for the individuals preparing the food.
While it may seem logical to try a grain-free diet, since it might stand to reason that zero grains means low carbs and thus higher protein, this is not really the case. One thing to remember is that grain-free diets still include carbohydrates from other sources. The second thing to remember is that there are plant sources of protein as well, not just meat. Grain-free diets thus don’t necessarily have higher protein levels than other diets and still have carbs.
It’s always important to speak with your veterinarian before making any major diet changes or assuming that any changes in diet will make a major difference in your dog’s urinary properties.
Because of how complicated diet changes can be, it may be safer and simpler to add a supplement like Grass Be Green if indicated.
And remember, there are many things that contribute to these urinary properties, so don’t just assume your pup needs a urinary acidifier. The best way to verify urine pH is by having your vet check out a sample of your pup’s pee.
3. Bind Up Nitrogen
Although pH is a contributor, the nitrogen waste products in urine are the greatest factor leading to urine-related grass death. This is mostly because all dogs excrete these products normally to some degree as a result of protein metabolism.
Supplement products that bind and deactivate excess nitrogen are a top preventative option. Fortunately, many products that contain an acidifier, also contain a nitrogen binder like Yucca schidigera, as found in Grass Be Green. Yucca is a flowering plant native to the Mojave Desert and some other regions. When supplemented, it has actually shown to bind ammonia in urine, reducing nitrogen-related damage to grass.
4. Provide More Fresh Water (For Your Pup and Your Grass!)
Having a ready supply of clean, fresh water is always a good idea for your dog. Our bodies do much better when they’re well-hydrated and our kidneys stay a lot happier.
If a urinalysis for your pup shows a higher than expected urine concentration, or even if your pup is just extremely active or pants a lot at home, you may find that you need to make a fresh water supply more available.
Keeping your dog’s urine concentration within the normal range or slightly dilute will in turn dilute out urine waste products, making urine less caustic to your grass.
In a similar vein, make sure to provide plenty of fresh water for your lawn too! “Dilution is the solution to pollution” as they say, so by regularly watering your lawn, you can also dilute out the waste products already deposited by urine elimination.
5. Modify the Environment
Because the underlying reasons contributing to a dog’s urine characteristics can be complicated, trying to modify them can be just as difficult sometimes. If all else seems to fail and you’re still having an issue with urine-induced grass death, try a different approach.
You can train a dog to utilize a particular part of the yard to eliminate in. Perhaps there’s an area that already doesn’t grow grass very well, that’s also in a less visible location that you can use. If not, consider constructing one. An area manufactured for your pup to eliminate in should be at least 2-3x his length and width. It could be as simple as an area of crushed stone or gravel or made more elaborate by adding a nice border around the edges.
While gravel helps with drainage, dogs do prefer to eliminate on grass. So another option is to look into artificial turf. There are actually several companies that make artificial turfgrass with pet elimination in mind. This method is also pretty eco-friendly as long as you’ve got good drainage underneath the turfgrass.
You, Your Pup, and Your Grass: Bonding Together
Although the bond with your pup is hopefully much stronger, it’s understandable to have an attachment to your grass. It is after all, a living thing too and requires a lot of care and attention. Hopefully, some of these tips can help you find a good balance this spring and summer. After all, there’s nothing like being able to bond with your lawn by bonding with your dog playing fetch or another fun game on that full, green expanse of soft, springy grass.