Deicing Salts: Are There Pet-Safe and Eco-Friendly Options?

While winter may seem like a slow time for gardening, there’s still plenty to do to keep your landscape River-Friendly. One thing to consider is deicing salts used on icy paths and driveways. While they help melt ice and make our roads and walking surfaces safer during the winter months, they also can harm our pets and the environment.

Why Are Deicing Salts Bad? 
There are lots of different deicing  and anti-icing chemicals on the market, but the most common and affordable is rock salt (sodium chloride). Salt does a good job of melting ice because when sodium and chloride dissolve, they lower the freezing point of water by disrupting water molecules’ ability to bond together and form ice. But once the sodium and chloride break apart, they persist in the environment and can have harmful effects.

Photo Credit: Carrie Jensen Caption: There are many different de-icing chemicals available to choose from.

Harmful to Pets
First, sodium chloride can be harmful to your pets. The salts can get caught in your pet’s paws when they walk across surfaces with deicing salts. Not only can this be an irritant that burns their paw pads, but if your pet ingests large amounts from licking their paws or drinking out of puddles where this salt has accumulated, it can also be toxic. 
For more information on toxicity concentrations and potential symptoms of chloride poisoning in pets, the American College of Veterinary Pharmacists has a reference chart available (link). 

Photo credit: Tiinuska/Pixabay Caption: Deicing salts can irrigate paw pads.

Harmful to Plants and Soil
In a River-Friendly Landscape our goals are to promote healthy, drought-tolerant plants and soils that retain water onsite, but the addition of sodium and chloride from deicing salts works against both those principles. 

Rock salt deicers can have many impacts on soils including reduction of soil structure, inhibition of water infiltration and percolation, increased soil density and pH, and decreased fertility by displacing essential nutrients. Absorption of chlorine in plants, either through the soil or foliage, can also cause stunted growth and plant burn, which has similar symptoms to extreme drought stress.

These issues can also be compounded for gardeners in South Reno, where the native soils are naturally higher in salts and minerals like boron. It’s already challenging to garden in Truckee Meadow soils, so any addition of salts in the landscape should be done cautiously.

Photo Credit: USDA Forest Service Caption: Salt spray from roads can burn vegetation like these trees on a roadside that received deicing salt treatments during the winter months.

Harmful to Waterways
Road salts can also impact water quality in streams, rivers, wetlands, and lakes. Chloride is toxic to aquatic life at varying levels across the food web. When salts dissolve in water, it also increases the water’s density. The denser water sinks to the bottom of ponds and lakes and disrupts natural lake mixing and inhibits gas exchange, decreasing oxygen available for fish and other aquatic organisms. Sodium can also be transported to groundwater, thus impacting drinking water resources.

Are There Pet-Safe and Eco-Friendly Deicing Alternatives?
Yes, there are alternatives to rock salt, but unfortunately there is no deicing product that eliminates all impacts to pets and the environment. We each just have to weigh the pros and cons of the different options and choose the product that best meets our needs. Here are some options to consider along with a summary of some of their pros and cons.

Type of Deicer ProsCons
Other Chloride-Based Products (potassium chloride, magnesium chloride and calcium chloride)Can be applied in lower concentrations, which reduces the amount of chloride introduced into the environmentLower application rates reduces the risk of chloride toxicity in petsSodium-free and reduced impacts to soil chemistrySome work faster at melting ice than rock saltSome work better than rock salt at temperatures below 20℉More expensive than rock saltCan still burn plants if comes in contact with foliageWhile lower concentrations of chloride reduces risk to pets, they can still be harmful Can impact water quality because chloride to toxic to aquatic life
Acetate-Based Products (calcium-magnesium acetate and potassium acetate)Less toxic to petsChloride freeCan act as a fertilizer in soils and less negative impacts to soil chemistryHigh organic content can cause oxygen depletion in waterwaysMore expensive than other deicing agents
Carbohydrate-Based Products (made from sugar beets)Non-toxic to petsCan be added to other deicing chemical blends to lower the freezing point and reduce application amountsCan cause algae blooms that deplete oxygen in waterwaysDon’t work effectively as stand-alone deicing agent; are best in a blended product
Sand or Kitty LitterNon-toxic to petsCan be added to other deicing chemical blends to improve traction and reduce deicing application amountsDoesn’t actually melt ice; only provides increased tractionSediments, if not contained onsite, can clog storm drains and impact water quality

Best Management Practices
Wow! That’s a lot of information about deicing products, but it seems there’s no perfect one to choose. So what should I do to protect my pets and the environment? Well, there are a few best management practices to consider that can help reduce deicing salt impacts while still making sure our walkways are safe during the winter months.

  • Think of Shoveling Snow as a Free Workout
    The highest priority should be to prevent ice from forming in the first place. This means shoveling snow early and often. While this may be more work, it does reduce the need for deicing products. Plus, it’s cheaper than paying for a gym membership!
  • Apply Chemicals Responsibly
    But even if we do a good job of shoveling and keeping walkways clear of snow and ice build-up, the reality is that at some point each of us may need to apply a deicing product. No matter what deicing product you choose to apply, it is important to apply it responsibly, using the appropriate amounts recommended by the manufacturer to obtain the desired results. Don’t use these products in excess, and you will help reduce the impacts to both your pets and the environment.
  • Keep Chemicals Onsite
    All deicing options, even those marketed as pet-safe and eco-friendly, have the potential to impact water quality. That’s why it’s important to contain chemicals on our properties and keep them out of the storm drain and local waterways. This means using features like permeable paving, rain gardens, and dry swales to soak up water and keep it onsite. Learn more about this in our previous blog on how River-Friendly Landscaping can slow the flow and keep water onsite (link).
  • Paw Protection
    And let’s not forget about our furry friends. There are also ways to limit the harm of deicing salts on our pets. You could consider trying booties for your pet’s paws. These help protect paws from chemicals and other injuries while out on walks. If booties don’t work, another option to consider is making a habit of washing off your pet’s paws and drying them with a towel after going for a walk. This not only removes potentially harmful deicing chemicals but also reduces the amount of mud they track into the house! 
Photo Credit: Carrie Jensen Caption: Dry swales can soak up water and keep it onsite. This reduces the amount of water and pollutants that flows to the storm drain.

Now that you’re informed, you can help protect your puppy’s paws and the Truckee River!