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Cats and Your Houseplants: An Epic Tale of Love and Betrayal

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There are dog people and cat people. Then, there are dog people gardeners and cat people gardeners. Being a lover of either four-legged friend comes with some challenges if you also happen to love your plants. Dog owners definitely have a lot to deal with if their pet happens to be a handful—some more irritating behaviors include wearing a foot path through flower beds, habitual hole-digging in non-hole-digging areas, converting garden spaces into a doggy restroom, and completely digging out your EarthBox to eat the entire strip of organic fertilizer (personal experience). But, the good thing about a naughty dog is, with some work and some patience, much of that behavior can be corrected. At the very least, dogs might express one drop of remorse for the things that they have done to upset you.

And then, there are cats.

Remorse? Pfftt! Training? Yeah, right. Any cat owner will tell you that they don’t have a home so much as they live and work in the cat’s home (and that being referred to as a “cat-owner” is sort of a misnomer—it owns you 100% of the time). If that cat’s home happens to include, oh, a bunch of houseplants that you like…well, tough. Hopefully, if you have cats, you’re one of the lucky ones whose kitty doesn’t really notice how delicious your spider plant is looking these days. Or how easy it would be to boot your Boston fern off of your plant stand and behind your couch so it can watch you pull the whole thing out and vacuum up all of the potting soil. Or how awesome it would be to scale your Christmas tree like King Kong on the Empire State Building and bring the whole thing crashing down in the middle of the night (that’s a seasonal indoor plant foul).

For whatever reason, we continue to feed and house these reprobates despite countless assaults against treasured houseplants (and leather upholstery, the corners of the bed, and the banister, but that’s a different story entirely). Even though dogs can be pretty devastating to outdoor beds, there’s just something extremely irksome about a pet messing with the plants inside—these are the plants you see all day long, and might even be hand-me-downs or inherited from someone you care about. There’s also a big difference between crimes being committed outside versus in the very house we live in. If we are going to keep these purring plant predators around, we have to take measures to protect plants and do what we can to deter our kitties from doing what seems to come naturally.

First, it is always worth noting that where a cat is a voracious chewer of plants, you should make sure that everything growing in your home is non-toxic. It is surprising how many of the most common houseplants can make your pets sick if ingested:

Dracaena

Jade

Caladium

Philodendron

Aloe

Lilies

English ivy

Dieffenbachia

Amaryllis

Asparagus fern

Cyclamen

Yucca

Sago palm

Pothos

Chances are good that if you have several houseplants, you have plants in your home that can make your cat very ill. Make sure that these are well out of reach, and that you keep an eye out for both nibbling and unusual behavior in your pet. Signs that a kitty has ingested a toxic plant include vomiting, diarrhea, drooling, excessive thirst, swelling in and around the mouth, lethargy, and in some cases, more serious reactions like seizures and difficulty breathing. Plant poisoning can be extremely severe, so we recommend that you stick to kitty-safe houseplants:

African violets

Bamboo

Boston fern

Christmas cactus

Prayer plant

Spider plant

Hens and Chicks

Venus fly trap

Wandering Jew

Lady slipper

Ponytail palm

Cast iron plant

If you have any doubts or concerns about what is and is not pet-safe in your home, we encourage you to talk to your pet care provider—they’ll tell you everything you need to know about how to keep your kitty safe.

Now, the question is how do you keep those jerks from thinking they’re at an all-you-can-eat salad bar?

Well, our first suggestion would be to plant an all-you-can-eat salad bar. Think about it: many gardeners use companion planting to draw pests away from the stuff they are trying to protect, either by surrounding it with repellent plants or by distracting pests with a decoy garden of attractive alternatives. Think about your cat like she’s a pest (…she is). If she’s compelled to snack on your plants, give her some tasty greens of her own to chew to her heart’s contentment. Look for cat grass, catmint, or catnip seeds or plants in your local pet store or nursery. You can also keep lemongrass in a pot—not only will your cat like it, but you can save some for yourself to use for cooking. Valerian is another plant recommended for cats, especially since a chemical in valerian causes many cats to go bonkers, not unlike catnip. Pot up your cat-friendly houseplants, and place them strategically around your home to distract kitties from going after the ones you don’t want them to. A lot of the places where you can purchase pet food and treats will have cat grass kits that will just require you to add water and set in a sunny place—piece of cake.

The next strategy is the most obvious: hang your plants up. Cats can do a lot of things, but they haven’t figured out how to fly, yet, so enjoy your houseplants in hanging baskets and vertical planters. Ferns, wandering Jews, and ivy frequently come in hanging baskets, anyway, so all you’ll need to do is install some simple little hooks in your ceiling to display them. Your potted plants can be hoisted up with a decorative macramé or beaded hanger and hung from an interesting wall-mounted hook. You could also examine the awesome DIY vertical container garden ideas floating around out there for planting solutions that will not only protect your plants from cats, but will look cool AND save you space.

Now, let’s talk repellents. There are more commercial cat repellents on the market than we could possibly begin to list, and cat-owners report wildly different results from one repellent to the next. All we can tell you about those is keep trying them until you find one that works, make sure that it doesn’t contain anything that will make your cat or your plant sick, and be sure to spot-test anything you might be spraying around wood or upholstery to be sure that it won’t cause stains. If you’d like to make a concoction at home, many of the strong-smelling herbs, spices, and fruits you have in your kitchen are pretty good at grossing cats out. Lavender, rosemary, cinnamon, garlic, onion, and lemon have potent scents that get cats to steer clear. You can make sachets out of the herbs, or you can boil these ingredients in water to make a spray. Two things that you shouldn’t use to repel your kitty are moth balls and hot pepper. Moth balls are quite toxic to pets, and while hot pepper might not be, it could get into your cat’s eyes and nose, and that’s both painful and rude.

A method of repelling cats that doesn’t involve spraying a bunch of potentially gross-smelling liquid all over your plants involves putting a texture barrier around them. A lot of cats are really touchy about where they put their feet—those little footpads are very sensitive. If your cat has ever snagged you in a surprise bear trap for poking at her paws, this could be peeve you can use against her to protect your plants. Look for things around your house that crinkle or make a very noticeable noise when handled, like foil, or are sticky, like tape. You can line the area around your potted plant with foil or double-sided tape on pieces of paper or cardboard. Your kitty will be very turned off by walking on nasty crinkling or sticky surfaces to try and access your plant. There are also commercial deterrent mats available that utilize either a yucky-feeling texture or a very mild static shock to keep kitties off of them.

Photos:

Sainpaulia ionantha.  WildfeuerCC BY-SA 3.0