Pet Connection: Set up an indoor garden for your cat

10/02/2012 12:00 AM

10/01/2012 3:42 PM

In the spring and summer, it is easy to enjoy greenery.

It's all around us, and if we don't have any in our homes, we're outside enough to see all we want. But when the days shorten, we start to crave our indoor gardens.

Unfortunately, our cats do, too.

But cats and houseplants don't have to be an either-or proposition. To have both, all you need to do is give your cats some plants of their own and make the other houseplants less attractive. And don't sweat the occasional chewed leaves or knocked-over pot.

Your cat needs some plants for nibbling, some for sniffing and some for play. For chewing, always keep a pot of tender grass seedlings – rye, alfalfa and wheat – growing in a sunny spot. Parsley and thyme are herbs that many cats enjoy smelling and chewing, and both can be grown indoors. Try different varieties, especially with the parsley.

Catnip is a natural for any cat garden, but the herb is so appealing to some cats that they just won't leave it alone. Keep seedlings out of reach of your pet, or the plant may never get a chance to mature.

Once you've got a mature plant, snip off pieces to give to your cat, to stuff into toys or to rub on cat trees. Catnip can't hurt your pet, so let it get as blissed out as it wants.

Don't be surprised, however, if catnip has no effect at all: The ability to enjoy the herb is genetic, and some cats do not possess the "catnip gene."

Valerian is another plant some cats find blissful, so be sure to plant some of that herb, too.

When your cat has its own plants, you can work on keeping it away from yours. Plants on the ground or on low tables are the easiest targets for chewing, digging up or knocking asunder, so make your houseplants less accessible to a bored and wandering cat. Put plants up high, or better yet, hang them.

For the plants you can't move out of harm's way, make them less appealing by coating leaves with something your cat finds disagreeable. Cat-discouragers include Bitter Apple, a nasty-tasting substance available at any pet-supply store, or Tabasco sauce from the grocery store. Whenever you find what your cat doesn't like, keep reapplying it to enforce the point.

Once your cat learns that the leaves aren't so tasty, you can teach it that dirt isn't for digging and pots aren't for tipping. Pot your plants in heavy, wide-bottomed containers and cover the soil of the problem plants with rough decorative rock. Foil and waxed paper are less attractive deterrents, and I don't like to recommend them as much as decorative rock because you're going to get tired of looking at them.

You can also deter your cat from approaching pots by using carpet runners around the plants, with the pointy-side up.

Whatever tool or combination of tools you choose, remember that the most important ones are patience and compromise. Give your cat the greens it wants and make the rest less attractive.

A lush indoor garden is within the reach of any cat lover willing to compromise for the happiness of the cat.

A final note: Not all plants are safe for cats and other pets. Lilies, in particular, are toxic – and a common source of pet poisoning. Check the ASPCA's Animal Poison Control Center's list of toxic and safe houseplants (http://aspca.org/pet-care/poison-control/plants) before buying any indoor greenery.

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