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Road salt may be the cheapest way to melt ice, but it costs us in other ways, withering plants, staining shoes and irritating the paws of city pets - not to mention seriously polluting groundwater. Here are things you can do to dilute these common complaints.

Sore paws

Oh, the embarrassment of a pampered-looking pooch shod in reflective Gore-Tex - but the alternative is lamb-like bawling when salt seeps into a dog's feet. "Imagine having salt rammed between the toes, with all the moisture and pressure," says Aileen White of the Winnipeg Humane Society. "Open sores become aggravated, and the dog is really suffering."

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Ms. White recommends boots that fit snugly without cutting off circulation. Disposable balloon styles don't last as long as conventional boots but won't put you too much out of pocket if one gets lost in the snow.

For barefoot walks, use a thick layer of salve (available at pet stores) to seal paw pads and thoroughly wipe feet after a walk, cleaning between the toes.

Stained shoes

To erase white ridges from leather shoes, use a commercial salt stain remover or wipe with a soft cloth dampened with two parts warm water and one part white vinegar. Rinse with another cloth wet with water only. "It works, but doesn't take out everything in there," says Patrick Nijdam of the Quick Cobbler in Vancouver. "You can diminish it, and then the best way to hide it is just to polish the shoe."

Once your shoes are thoroughly dry, Mr. Nijdam suggests heating up a wax-based polish and applying with a horsehair brush or cloth. "It fills up the pores with wax so the salt can't get in," he says, adding that you can prevent future blemishes with a top coat of protector spray. "Leather is supposed to be waterproof, but a spray may help with general stains, like dirt, and make the leather easier to clean as well."

Avoid sprays containing silicone, which can ruin some leathers.

Plant damage

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Salt sprayed by passing cars damages stems and foliage, and makes plants less cold resistant. Underground, accumulated salt prevents roots from soaking up sufficient water and nutrients, though they may absorb toxic levels of sodium. "Your lawn is an entire ecosystem," says Lise Smith, co-ordinator of the Manitoba Eco-Network. "Salt will change pH of the soil and affect anything growing there, both plants and other organisms."

Wrap vulnerable trees and shrubs in plastic or burlap to protect them from salt spray and avoid placing new plants close to the street or driveway.

Come springtime, aerate the soil to help air, water and nutrients get in. Water deeply to flush away salt, then apply organic matter and gypsum to help the soil recover.

Most importantly, reduce salt use as much as possible. "Salt won't even work at certain temperatures," Ms. Smith says. (It's not effective below - 10 C.) "A lot of times we're applying it for nothing."

And don't do this: Use salt for traction. Shovel well and use sand or kitty litter instead.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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