Animal House Home Customizations

Pet Friendly goes Pet Fabulous

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Trends in home design are increasingly moving beyond occasional nods toward pet-friendly to substantial installations that are truly pet fabulous.

While it might seem strange to some, the idea of customizing a house for life with pets is a given for pet parents, and the possibilities abound. “I think it adds a lot of value to the livability of the house if you take into consideration the family pet,” says Kathleen Donohue, a senior designer at Neil Kelly, a Portland-based design firm. “The more you can conveniently accommodate pets, the better it is for everyone.”

A certified master kitchen and bath designer, Donohue’s 25-year tenure with Neil Kelly has taken her to Bend, Eugene and Portland. With her cat named Hoodie and rescue Scottie named Major, Donohue has the perfect pet design testing team at home.

Popular contemporary designs often combine the dining, living and kitchen areas of the house into one big room. This open room is where people can comfortably be “together while apart” and comfortably talk, snack, watch TV or surf the Internet as a family. Still, until recently, designers hadn’t considered four-legged members of the family in their plans.

Pets are family members too, and one of the easiest customizations Donohue recommends is adding pet-friendliness to the great room.

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The lower section of a cupboard, bookshelf — even the un-used end of a kitchen island — can be converted into a tidy pet center. A medium-height shelf is ideal for a feeding and watering station for doggies, with the space below the bowls being a perfect out-of-the-way spot for toys.

For feline feeding, a shelf just below counter-level — high enough to be out of dog-tongue range — can be converted into a kitty dining table.

There are many variations on the idea, and they all achieve the same thing: Incorporating pets into the family’s living area in convenient, elegant ways.

Another popular remodeling option for pet guardians is incorporating a designated dog bathing station into their utility, laundry or mud room. “This usually consists of a shower pan, some low-tiled walls, and a handheld showerhead so muddy dogs can get a ‘hose down’ with warm water on chilly days,” says Donohue. “Of course a supply of fresh towels nearby is a must!”

This feature can be tweaked to suit people and pets. If space allows, a short counter can provide a pedestal for grooming.


For a mudroom remodel Donohue handled for friends, she added a special pet-parent touch to the Marmolium flooring (see “Animal House” featured in Spot August 2010).

Once she found a linoleum installer who could inlay patterns into the tiles, Donohue found a pawprint stencil and asked the installer to inlay the paw prints across the floor, following the path the dog would naturally take. Her friends now have a pet-friendly floor with permanent pawprints tracking from doorway to doorway.

Pet guardian Mark Bruso was seeking a remedy for muddy pawprints. His dog, Tivah, enjoys free access to the back yard through her pet door, so he asked a friend and handyman for design advice. Because the back door was positioned in an alcove off the living room, a gate was constructed that allowed human access to the back door while rerouting Tivah’s entry and exit.

Rather than tracking mud straight into the living room, now Tivah travels through a tunnel disguised as a window bench. By the time she exits her tunnel, her paws are wiped clean on the washable carpet lining the tunnel. The tunnel is so well disguised most people don’t realize it’s there. Even better, the gate was designed to be removed during summer months.

“We love our tunnel,” says Bruso. “The past few years our carpet has looked so much better.”

Customizing and Dog-Proofing the Yard

Keeping lawns . . . well, just keeping lawns, is a constant struggle for pet people. It’s the fight with dead, patchy, and bumpy lawns that makes synthetic lawns so appealing, even in the organic-centric Northwest. But synthetic lawns might be more “green” than people realize. It’s definitely not the AstroTurf of the ‘80s.

According to David McFarland, owner of SynLawn of Oregon, synthetic lawn is a product growing in popularity with pet people. It’s used commercially in dog-specific applications like agility courses and dogs runs. InBark, an indoor dog park recently opened in Tigard, used SynLawn products for its play area turf.

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Besides being incredibly realistic feeling and looking, SynLawn is practically made for pets. Specifically designed to be porous, rain and urine pass through the backing, eventually making its way through a layer of zeolite rock — a natural mineral that eliminates up to 80% of the ammonia in pet urine — and into the ground. Dogs’ paws don’t get muddy in the winter, dogs with grass allergies feel better, and it doesn’t require watering, fertilizers, weeding or mowing.

McFarland does admit that if there is a downside it might be the initial cost (grass seed is cheaper, but with virtually no maintenance cost, synthetic lawn might be cheaper in the long run), and due to the nylon in the grass blades, it doesn’t stay naturally cool in direct sunlight.

Still,  its durability, appearance and eco-friendliness (builders can use SynLawn to count toward LEED certification) is winning SynLawn a growing base of fans in the pet community..

Plants are another part of the yard dogs can be hard on. Sometimes plants can be hard on dogs, too, especially dogs who like backyard salad.

Melinda Frey and Anne Taylor, of Raindrop Garden Design and Living Elements Landscape respectively, are landscape designers known for their presenting their pet-friendly plant expertise during local seminars and workshops. The duo has been invited to do a pet-friendly presentation next June at the Oregon Garden in Silverton.

So much of what pet parents focus on is what not to put in their yard. While it is important to avoid plants heavy in toxins, like caster beans, Frey explains that the time to be most cautious is during puppyhood. “The time you need to worry is when you introduce them to your yard,” Frey says. “Or when dogs are left outside unattended. Put up a barrier, temporarily, until the pet is no longer interested.”

Bitter Apple, a spray found in many pet supply stores, is especially effective at keeping curious nibblers away from plants indoors.

When it comes to landscape design, one of the most problematic parts of the yard for many pet guardians is the fenceline. The first thing Frey recommends is that if your if your dog is aggressive, seek help from a professional trainer. As she puts it, “Aggression isn’t good for your dog, and it’s not good for neighborhood relations.”

Because your dog wants to know what’s going on around his or her territory, allow for visibility. But, to keep the area along the fence from becoming a doggy autobahn, plant a screen of shrubs or similar barrier plants a couple of feet from the fence. This not only provides a visual screen so the fenceline isn’t so distracting, it also provides a partial physical boundary for the backyard hound.

Along with training, there are actually behavior-correcting plants that work well in problem areas. Selectively using plants like holly or dwarf conifers can provide structure and year-round color. And because they’re kind of prickly, dogs tend to give them clearance.

Other sturdy plants to consider are sword-ferns, which hold up well to dogs and can be refreshed with pruning every year in late winter. Ornamental grasses are another option. Sturdy and often drought-tolerant, some varieties grow up to 8 feet tall. Unlike conifers, they do die back each year.

Dogs’ love of pathways can be another frustration . "Dogs will create the straightest point from A to B,” says Frey. “If you try creating a new path they will go back to their original. Stick with their original.”

Instead of fighting dog-made paths, enhance them. “Try fitting it into your yard’s aesthetics,” recommends Frey. Use mulch, cedar chip (NOT cocoa mulch), gravel or pavers to make the path look intentional. Frey adds that edging the paths with full plantings helps keep the dog on track. "That cuts down on dogs going every which way, and it keeps their paws from getting muddy."

Great Resource!

Pretty Pet Friendly

by Julia Szabo, recomended by from Melinda Frey.


Jake Faris is a freelance writer who's worn many different hats, including a hardhat and the 8-point hat of a police officer. Jake and his wife Charity live with their three cats and four dogs in Beaverton. The whole pack moved to Portland from Wenatchee, Washington, years ago. Now a dedicated Oregonian, Jake finds new reasons to love his adopted state very day. Contact him here