Mulch Ado About Nothing

I was schlepping plants around at the garden center when my mobile buzzed.  It was M calling to ask my opinion regarding an interaction he’d had over in the garden center at his store.

“There was a customer just in who was raising a big fuss because we’re selling cocoa mulch, and how it’s poisonous to dogs, and how we’re criminals for selling it, and I just wondered what you knew about it.”

“Cocoa-bean hull mulch?” I verified, as phone conversations can trip me up, “Poisonous to dogs?”  I’d heard right.  “Well hell, most anything can be kill you, even water.  ‘The poison’s in the dosage.’  It depends upon the dog, how much they eat and so on.  Some dogs’ll eat ANYTHING.   Sure, chocolate’s not good for dogs, but I can’t imagine there’d be that much Theobromine in the hulls.  It’s in the nibs.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought.  I asked him where he’d heard this, and he said, ‘On the Internet,’ and I had to bite my thumb — hard — to keep from laughing at him.”  M doesn’t tolerate fools, but a lot of forbearance must be exercised when one works retail.  “He was really raising a big fuss about it; saying the he’s going to call the Action News Teams and so on.”

Fft! We sell lots of stuff that dogs shouldn’t eat; chocolate bars, cleaning products, even plants like Foxgloves and Euphorbias.  But we’re not recommending that anyone let dogs EAT them.  No one’s even suggesting that customers use cocoa mulch for dog pens!  Holy cows.”

We nattered a couple minutes more about the dangers of pseudoscience on Teh Internets and the intransigencies of customers before returning to our jobs, and then I mentioned the issue (and my analysis) to our manager, just in case.

Of course, when we got home from our jobs, we just had to check things out.  I noodled around on the university extension sites for plants poisonous to dogs, and found this good list from Cornell University Department of Animal Science.  There was a good piece on the whole dogs+cocoa mulch story in the online Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. And for the non-technical audience, the thing that our earnest-but-irresponsible citizen-crusader should have checked, an article on Snopes about the whole foofaraw.

M (a former Army nurse) was unimpressed about the story of a dog named Calypso dying after eating cocoa mulch.  “Did anyone do an autotopsy to determine that it was the mulch that actually caused the dog’s death?!”

“Correlation doesn’t equal causality,” I recited, pulling out a handy script while I mentally digested the JAVMA article.  “Really, most people — and animals — have eaten something before they die.  But that doesn’t mean their stomach contents were what caused the death!”

I clicked through some more pages.  “Oh look, the way it’s processed nowadays removes most of the Theobromine and such, anyway.”  As an aside, I added, “I tried the stuff a few years ago.  It smells GREAT when you open the bag (we had to make brownies afterwards), but it’s so light it blows away, and it tended to get moldy when it rained a lot.  It’s also really expensive.  I wasn’t impressed; I like pine-bark mulch better.”

“I wish people would check things out that they read on the Internet before they go around threatening stores,” grumbled M.

I harrumped, thinking of the dozens of flavors of bunk associated with horticulture, autism, and other topics.

“Well,” he added, “If that guy comes in again, I’ll let him know that a horticulturalist, a scientist, said it’s not highly toxic.  We’re not being irresponsible for selling mulch.”



  1. Mados said,

    27 February 2012 at 9:07

    “Really, most people — and animals — have eaten something before they die. But that doesn’t mean their stomach contents were what caused the death!”

    Good phrase to illustrate that correlation does not equal causality… I think I might use that:-)

  2. 4 June 2009 at 17:10

    […] friend Andrea just got done telling Skeptigirl about the misconception that cocoa bark can harm pets. It’s amazing how much misinformation gets thrown around when skeptics are on […]

  3. 1 June 2009 at 19:07

    In the US, I find it hard to locate a product that IS harmful to animals, as I was also blasted with the, “you are killing squirrels” because I fed squirrels peanuts – turns out that yes, if you give squirrels salted peanuts, it suddenly makes sense that you are giving them a quick heart attack and yes, unroasted ones can have a mold which is toxic to squirrels but I have found that even in complete and blissful ignorance of buying multi-brands I have yet to buy one that is not ‘roasted unsalted’ bags of peanuts (do they KNOW I am going to give them to squirrels) – so I imagine the mulch companies have had to consider any domestic animal known and what could cause it harm due to possible litigation. But it does make one feel odd and foolish when someone is SO insistant and you, or at least I, don’t know…..yet. Then when I do know it is like, ‘Well that was a giant waste of time.’ – However, you can report that drinking bleach, if it is sold is harmful to humans.

  4. kathleen said,

    1 June 2009 at 14:30

    well…we have gotten to a point in this world where we simply have to list the dangers of favorite is on buckets(you know the illustration of a child falling in head first and drowning) perhaps if on the mulch bags-they put a picture of a dog with x’s over his eyes? :)

  5. dkmnow said,

    31 May 2009 at 7:12

    We should expect to see that customer on Oprah before summer’s end. Maybe he’ll get his own show. Botanical-Supremacists and the Horticultural Dog-Murdering Conspiracy. Oh, save our poor puppies from the bloodthirsty eeevil of Big Botanism!

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