How to Keep Your Deck Safe for Kids and Pets
Follow these eight tips to keep your outdoor space kid- and pet-proof.
The most successful deck spaces are places where the whole family wants to spend time. But have you spent time making sure yours is safe for the whole family? We asked child safety expert Jennifer Murray, owner of Austin Babyproofing, and pet safety expert Melanie Monteiro, author of The Safe Dog Handbook, to weigh in on the most important items to address to keep kids and pets out of harm’s way.
Lock the door leading out to the deck. For households with small children, who shouldn’t be out on the deck unattended at all, this is the first logical safety step to take. “Put the lock up high so the kids can’t reach it,” Murray says. She prefers a flip-style lock (available at big-box stores) because it’s more attractive and can be chosen in a finish that matches your decor. “It isn’t big and bulky like other babyproofing locks on the market,” she says.
Offer areas of shade for pets. Your dog loves you and wants to be with you — so if the deck is too hot, he isn’t likely to complain, even when his paw pads are burning, Monteiro says. This can be a real problem with composite decking and certain types of stone. “Use the five-second rule,” she says. “If you can’t put the back of your hand down on a surface and hold it there for five seconds, it’s too hot for pet paws.” Use a retractable awning, umbrella or large potted tree to create shady areas cool enough for pets.
Mind your railings. If you’re designing a deck from scratch, be sure the spindles are placed less than three inches apart; wider spaces can allow kids or pets to fall through or become trapped. If your existing deck doesn’t meet this standard, consider using a railing cover for protection. Canvas products commonly marketed as railing covers are not the best solution, Murray says; instead, go for heavy-duty plastic mesh secured with cable ties or clear acrylic panels screwed directly into the wood. Make sure all materials used are UV-resistant so they don’t degrade in the hot sun.
Keep little ones contained with a gate. If you’re using the deck to keep your small dog or child confined, a gate to block the stairs will be necessary. (Of course, for children, this option works only under your direct supervision.) Murray recommends Cardinal Gates’ Outdoor Baby Gate, which is specifically designed to hold up to weather. Both Murray and Monteiro stress that gates aren’t ironclad solutions for keeping kids and pets contained, especially if you have furniture pushed up next to the railing, a gate with horizontal bars, or other ways for enterprising little creatures to climb up and out of the deck area. A final note: “Never tether your dog to a raised deck or to stairs,” Monteiro says. “She can fall and be seriously injured, or even strangled. Every time I see someone doing that, I cringe.”
Watch out for toxic plants. If you love container gardening on the deck, make sure the plants you choose are non-toxic; many common plants are hazardous to kids and pets. “It was actually my Labrador puppy’s run-in with a toxic plant that got me into dog safety,” Monteiro says. “I was unaware of all the toxic plants out there until she ate an azalea 10 years ago. It was a two-day, two-thousand-dollar ordeal, but luckily she survived.” Monteiro recommends an app published by the ASPCA that you can take to the garden center to double-check the safety of plants before you purchase; for kids, the National Capital Poison Center maintains a list of safe and unsafe plants.
Don’t forget mulches, either; cocoa mulch, for example, is toxic to pets. Garden chemicals should also be locked away safely out of reach. When in doubt about something your child or pet has ingested, call Poison Control right away.
Water must be top of mind. When it comes to children, water safety isn’t confined to the backyard pool. Any fountain or water feature also counts, as does any bucket or other receptacle left on the deck that catches rainwater. “Anything more than two inches of water is a drowning hazard because kids can fall in,” Murray says.
Precautions should also be taken for pets. “Five thousand pets drown in backyard pools each year,” Monteiro says. If you’re using your deck to contain your pet and keep her away from the pool, the previous tips on railings and gates take on extra importance. Make sure you use a pool cover that is designed specifically for pet/child safety.
Grill mindfully. The grill is a nearly unavoidable feature of deck life, and there are no simple solutions for making it 100% safe. Keep it out of the main traffic area if possible, supervise a hot grill at all times, and make sure the catch basin for drippings isn’t accessible to a hungry pet.
Take a view from a kid’s/pet’s eye level. Get down on your hands and knees periodically and crawl around your deck — you’ll see the splinters, raised nails and other hazards that are hard to spot from an adult human’s perspective. “Check regularly, because there are lots of changing variables outside,” Murray says. Seeing the world from your pet’s or child’s point of view will help you spot problems before they become real dangers.