One quick thing before I dive into this month’s post: if you’re a Twitter user, check out my series of very tiny science tweets under the hashtag #272sci. The aim is to explain a science thing in one tweet – without using a thread – and it’s 272 because that’s the number of characters I have to use after including the hashtag and a space. So far I’ve covered leaf colours, frothy milk, caffeine and poisonous millipedes. There will be more to come!
Now, speaking of Twitter, a couple of weeks ago Prof Mark Lorch tweeted about Dog Rocks. Dog… what? I hear you ask (really quite understandably).
Well, it turns out that Dog Rocks are a product that you can buy, and that you put into your dog’s water bowl. Your dog then drinks the water that has been sloshing over the rocks, and, this is where we start to run into trouble, this is meant to have an effect on your dog’s urine. This, in turn, is supposed to protect any grass your dog might then pee on.
All right, so let’s start somewhere in the vague vicinity of some science: if you have a dog, or even if you’ve just spent some time with someone who has a dog, you’ve probably noticed that dog urine isn’t very kind to grass. Commonly, you see something like the photo here, that is, patches of yellow, dead grass, surrounded by quite luscious green growth.
Why is this? It’s because dog urine – like the urine of all mammals – contains urea, CO(NH2)2. Urea forms in the body when animals metabolise nitrogen-containing compounds, in particular, proteins. It’s essentially a way for the body to get rid of excess nitrogen.
People sometimes confuse urea with ammonia, for reasons that I’ll come to in a moment. But they’re not the same thing. Urea is odourless, forms a pH neutral solution and, if you extract it from the liquid in which it is dissolved, produces solid crystals at room temperature.
Pure ammonia, NH3, by contrast, is a gas at room temperature (boiling point -33.3 ℃), forms alkaline solutions (with pH values greater than 7) and has that pungent ‘ngggh get it away from me!’ smell with which we’re probably all familiar.
Although these two substances aren’t the same, they are linked: many living things convert ammonia (which is very toxic) to urea (which is much less so) as part of normal metabolism. And it also goes the other way, in a process called urea hydrolysis. This reaction happens in urine once it’s out of the body, too, which is the main reason why, after a little while, urine starts to smell really, really bad.
Okay, fine, but what has this got to do with grass, exactly? Well urea (and ammonia, for that matter) are excellent sources of nitrogen. Plants need nitrogen to grow, but dog urine contains too much, and too much nitrogen is bad – in the same way that too much of pretty much anything nice is bad for humans. It damages the blades of grass and a yellowish dead spot appears, often ringed by some particularly lush grass that, being slightly outside the immediate target zone, caught a whiff of extra nitrogen without being overwhelmed.
Back to Dog Rocks. Interestingly, the website includes an explanation not unlike the one I’ve just given on their fact sheet. What it doesn’t do is satisfactorily explain how Dog Rocks are supposed to change the nitrogen content of your dog’s urine.
The website says that Dog Rocks are “a coherent rock with a mechanically stable framework”. Okay… so… Dog Rocks won’t dissolve or break up in your dog’s water bowl. A good start. It goes on to say, “the rocks provide a stable matrix and a micro-porous medium in which active components are able to act as a water purifying agent through ion exchange” and “Dog Rocks will help purify the water by removing some nitrates, ammonia and harmful trace elements thereby giving your dog a cleaner source of water and lowering the amount of nitrates found in their diet.”
You’ll note they’re using the word nitrate. Nitrates are specifically compounds containing the NO3– ion, but I think they’re using the term in a more general way, to suggest any nitrogen-containing compound (including urea and ammonia). And by the way, nitrates are different from the similar-sounding nitrites, which contain the NO2– ion. Fresh urine from a healthy dog (or human, for that matter) shouldn’t contain nitrite. In fact, a dipstick test for nitrite in urine is commonly used to check for urinary tract infections, because it suggests bacteria are present.
Anyway, nitrates/nitrites aside, it’s the last bit of that claim which really makes no sense. Your dog is not ingesting anything like a significant quantity of nitrogen-containing compounds from its water bowl. Urea comes from the metabolic breakdown of proteins, and they come from your dog’s food.
It’s faintly possible, I suppose, that Dog Rocks might somehow filter out some urea/nitrates from urine. But then your dog would have to pee through the Dog Rocks and, honestly, if you can manage to arrange that, you might as well train your dog not to pee on your grass in the first place.
I suggest that there are three possible explanations for the positive testimonials for this product. 1) Owners who use it are inadvertently encouraging their dogs to drink more water, which could be diluting their urine, leading to less grass damage. 2) It’s all a sort of placebo effect: owners imagine it’s going to work, and they see what they’re expecting to see, or 3) they’re all made up.
You decide, but there is absolutely no scientifically-plausible way that putting any kind of rocks in your dog’s water bowl will do anything to stop dog pee damaging your grass. This is £15 you do not need to spend. But hey, you could avoid the money burning a hole in your pocket (see what I did there?) by buying me a coffee… 😉
Check out the Twitter hashtag #272sci here, and support the Great Explanations book project here!
Do you want something non-sciency to distract you from, well, everything? Why not take a look at my fiction blog: the fiction phial? You can also find me doing various flavours of editor-type-stuff at the horror podcast, PseudoPod.org – so head over there, too!
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Gonna try it anyway.