Cats and Houseplants: Not Always a Good Mix

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Cat chowing down on a ponytail palm: there are ways of preventing this.

What to do When Pussy Attacks Your Houseplant?

In general, plant-lovers also like animals, so it’s not uncommon to see one share his or her home with a dog, a canary, a few fish… or a cat. In general, pets and houseplants get along fairly well together. True enough, sometimes an overly energetic dog will knock a pot over, but the damage is quickly repaired. It’s cats that cause the most problems: they tear up and chew the leaves of our plants, sleep in their pot… and even defecate in their soil. What can you do to prevent their bad behaviour?

Pot as a Litter Box Substitute

When cats use a plant pot as a letter box, things can become very unpleasant very quickly. Fortunately though this is also the easiest problem to solve.

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A chicken wire barrier: not elegant, but effective!

You’ll notice that cats don‘t use just any pot as a litter box: they prefer large pots placed directly on the floor and with little foliage at soil level. Often, simply raising pussy’s favorite pot on a pedestal or shelf solves the problem completely. If not, try to cover the pot with sharp gravel. Failing that, cover the surface with chicken wire (galvanized poultry netting). It’s the least elegant solution, but at least it’s certain that kitty will go elsewhere.

Speaking of going elsewhere, make sure that your cat’s litter box is changed frequently, as cats disdain dirty or smelly litter. If its litter box is always clean and fresh, your cat will be less likely to want to do its business elsewhere.

Sleepy Cats, Crushed Plants

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Kitty thinks this is just the greatest bed… you may not agree!

When your cat decides that the pot of your favorite houseplant is the most comfortable bed in the house, expect a rather flattened plant. Unlike a pot used as a litter box, which cats seem to prefer close to the ground, a good sleeping place can be anywhere. Sometimes you’ll find kitty sleeping in a hanging basket!

My cat Nounouche used to love sleeping in my seed trays, always in the highest row of my light stand, under fluorescent lights that gave off a gentle heat. It always looked like he was in a tanning salon! A chicken wire barrier quickly ended his naps among my seedlings. And the techniques used to deter cats from using a pot as litter box, such as covering the soil with gravel or a wire mesh barrier, can also help.

Or give your cat a sleeping space among your plants, offering it a comfortable pillow. It will prefer that to even the softest plant!

When Pussy Has the Munchies

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Hmm! Looks delicious!

It’s more difficult to convince the cats not to chew foliage.

In the wild, cats, although primarily carnivores, do eat green leaves occasionally. Some authorities think that this stimulates vomiting, thus helping the cat to get rid of indigestible materials (hair, bones, etc.) in its system, or it may be getting some vitamins essential for its health. It’s not a problem if your cat chews a bit of grass when it’s outdoors. It’s much less amusing when it chows down on your houseplants… and some cats are more into this practice than others.

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Offer your plant a pot of “cat grass”: any grass will do.

One way to solve this is to offer an alternative: offer kitty a pot of fresh grass! Some merchants sell pots of “cat grass” as if it were a specific type of plant, but in fact, these pots just contain sprouts of cereal grasses (wheat, oat, barley, etc.). You can get the same result for much less money by simply sowing seeds of the same cereals in a pot. You’ll easily find seeds in the “sprouts” section of your local garden center or health food store.

Just sow the seeds in a pot of moist soil, barely covering them, and water well. Keep the pot in a sunny spot, water occasionally and in just a few days, there will be plenty of greenery for kitty to chew on. Cat grass is not long-lived, at least not indoors. Sow more every 2 to 3 weeks.

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Catnip is really an outdoor plant.

Do note that cat grass is not the same as catnip. The latter, Nepeta cataria, is the plant makes some cats (but not all) go a bit crazy: they like to roll in it, purring and miaowing. With its broad crenate leaves, though, it no way resembles grass. Catnip doesn’t make a good houseplant; it’s something you’ll want to grow in an outdoor garden.

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Grasslike plants, such as this spider plant, are especially subject to attack.

You’ll probably notice that your cat won’t chew on just any plant: outdoors it seems especially attracted by grass and, indoors, by plants that look like grass. Thus, plants with narrow swordlike leaves, such as spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum), ponytail palms (Beaucarnea recurvate) and umbrella palms (Cyperus alternifolius), are more often victims of cats than plants with broad leaves. You may find it easier to give these grasslike plants to a neighbor and focus your houseplant collection on plants that are less attractive to kitty.

You can also try placing such plants out of reach of your cat or filling a shelf so full of plants that that pussy simply can’t jump there. Or place less delectable plants (prickly cacti or spiny euphorbias, for example) in front of your cat’s favorites.

20161101jOr try a repellent! You can find spray-on repellents in garden centers and hardware stores that are specifically designed to keep cats away. You can apply them to pots or even directly to the foliage (read the label first to make sure that the product is safe for plants) to discourage your cat.

Poisonous Plants

If your cat is an inveterate plant chewer, it’s important to make sure it doesn’t bite into plants that are toxic to cats. A lot of houseplants are poisonous to felines, but the vast majority have a very unpleasant taste and cats will quickly abandon their efforts to consume them. Among poisonous plants with such a foul taste cats rarely chew them are philodendrons (Philodendron spp.), dieffenbachias (Dieffenbachia spp.), English ivy (Hedera helix), and creeping fig (Ficus pumila).

One plant to be extra careful of, though, is the Easter lily (Lilium longiflorum). It’s toxic to cats, but not humans. Cats apparently find it quite delicious… then end up at the vet’s.

Shredded Foliage

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This tabby seems to be thinking “If it moves, kill it!”

In many cases, it’s not that pussy wants to eat the leaves, it wants to play with them… and ends up shredding them. Any foliage that moves under the effect of air currents is especially at risk of being attacked. Plants with hanging or flexible branches suffer most… and the good ol’ spider plant, already mentioned above as a plant cats like to chew on, has dangling leaves that cats love to scratch at as well. Place such plants out of your cat’s reach… or remove any dangling branches that are just too tempting

Of course, sometimes if a cat plays with plant foliage, it’s simply because it’s bored. If you suspect that may be the case, buy it a few toys or install a bird feeder near his favorite window. Most plants are much more attracted to fluttering birds, even if they are on the other side of a pane of glass, than to dangling plants indoors.

No Means No

20161101K.jpgOf course, for all the problems mentioned above (pots used for as a litter box or bed, chewed or shredded leaves, etc.), it’s also possible to teach your cat to leave your plants alone. When you catch your cat acting inappropriately, reprimand it by clapping your hands or saying a determined “no”. But you have to catch them carrying out the unacceptable behavior. There is no use punishing a cat for damage it did when you weren’t present: it simply won’t understand why you’re angry at it. You’ve got to catch it in the act!


There you go: several ideas that will help ensure good relations between cats and plant lovers. It’s now up to you to put them into practice!20161101a

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