3 Step Strategy For A Proof Cat-Safe Indoor Garden


Cat and indoor-garden? It is possible but you need to know how

You might be considering the idea of having a few potted plants around your house to harvest fresh and fragrant leaves. However, you are worried if this can be a problem for your cat. This article has you covered giving you the very best strategy based on extensive research to grow an indoor garden in harmony with your cat(s). Let’s dive in.

How to safely grow and maintain a cat-friendly indoor garden? To grow herbs with a cat around a three-step strategy can be followed:

  1. Decide: some indoor herbs can seriously harm a cat so it must be decided ahead which ones avoid; 
  2. Arrange: strategically place herbs so as not to be easily reached by a cat;
  3. Discourage: there are ways to discourage a cat from even approaching an herb;

You are free to apply either 1-2 or all 3 steps of the strategy. However, many cat owners find the best benefits from a combination of them. Let’s dive in the practical part with all you need to know to know about each one of these steps!

The Three-Step Strategy: Why You Need It

If you are a cat owner, you already know that it is not uncommon to find your cat eating grass or even herbs. One of the most common reasons for such behavior is their need to empty their stomach as the not-digestible vegetable matter causes them to throw-up. Another reason, quite common, is just their natural curiosity for new things.

However, if eating grass is OK, your cat is not able to differentiate one herb from another (if not in particular cases) that might seriously hurt him. Hence, the first step of the three-step strategy is to decide which herbs to avoid.

Decide: Hidden Danger To Avoid

Having in mind your little fur companion when deciding which herbs to grow inside your house/apartment will prevent any severe future problems. Here you have the list of those herbs, with corresponding symptoms, that you should totally avoid if you want to avoid any severe health problems for your cat.

Remember, for some herbs, it is not even necessary ingestion, a simple touch can be enough to cause severe irritation and skin problems. The good news is that most of the common edible herbs (like basil, rosemary, mint, etc…) are totally safe even if your cat decides to feed on them. 

Spring Parsley

This herb is dangerous to cats (as well as other animals) due to the presence of a substance that causes rough skin and eyes reaction in the presence of sunlight. When your cat eats such herb, it will start avoiding light and prefer the shadest corners of your house.

This because sunlight can cause irritation and even open wounds. Also, oral irritations are quite common. In this case, your cat will react, producing way more saliva than usual in the attempt to remove the toxin.

Chives

Although I did not know many indoor gardener planting chives, this plant (not an herb officially, although that fact that is edible makes many believes it is) can be moderately poisoning to cats. Indeed, as all the other members of the same family (like garlic and onion) contain a substance that can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and potential anemia.

St. John’s Wort

Even contact with this plant can cause severe problems for your cat. From blistering (in case of contact), photosensitivity, lack of coordination, weakness, mouth irritation, excess drooling, and a significant difference in their personality (cat all of sudden becomes really quiet and inactive) are among the most common reactions to look for.

Indian borage (Mexican Mint, Spanish thyme)

This herb causes a mild level of poisonous with stomach pain as the main symptom. However, for such reasons, the vet can have a hard time identifying the cause (and then a cure) of such issues. This because a stomach problem in an animal like a cat that eats everything, can be caused by a large variety of reasons or food.

That’s why it is of great importance to always provide the most detailed information on the plant that your cat can have eaten. Even a picture can be enough for an expert veterinary.

Lilies

These types of herbs (the majority of lilies are herbs) represent a severe and underestimated danger. Indeed, lilies are quite widespread in the Western world (especially in the USA) and, at the same time, among the most lethal for cats. Indeed, a cat can die within less than a week after ingesting only a handful of leaves. However, the symptoms are prominent and easy to recognize, giving you plenty of time to bring it to the specialist as soon as possible.

Among them, you have diarrhea, vomiting, and unwillingness to drink or eat. Lillies also cause severe renal problems. In this case, timing is essential. In the USA only, more than 20% of the cat intoxication cases are due to lilies.

Foxglove

This plant (an herb officially) is luckily not very popular for an indoor application. Every part of this herb (leaves, roots, stem, and flowers) is poisonous. The effects on cats are quite severe as it contains a chemical that significantly affects the heart activity. Hence, irregular slow heart rate, pupil dilatation, weakness, and seizures are among the most common symptoms to watch out. To notice that such plant, although in way less extent, is also poisonous to human;

Marijuana

The last years have seen a widespread growing of marijuana plants at home, especially in the USA. At the moment it is legal in 33 states for either medical or recreational use. This also caused a sudden increase in the number of emergency for cats poisoned by this herb.

More precisely, the ingestion of marijuana cause low responsiveness, change of humor, and the loss of an excessive amount of liquid through vomiting and urines. In some rare cases, a cat can enter a coma. In general, the effects of marijuana are temporary and are not health-threatening. However, the lack of coordination and difficulty in walking (your cat become clumsy) can lead to more severe problems (fall from a table or a balcony). Such symptoms depend on the amount ingested and type of plant and can last even several days.

Exceptional cases – Pregnant:  some plants like barberry, goldenseal, black, and blue are not dangerous except during pregnancy as can seriously affect the development of the fetuses.

Controversial – Comfrey: can cause severe liver damage to cats. However, this is the case only if eaten in large quantities. Hence, especially for indoor applications, it is not a real issue. I would keep 1 maximum of 2 pots at home just for extra security.

This article and my experiences are focused on herbs. However, I do understand that you want to know all the potential “green” dangers (herbs and not) that might hang around your house. Below you can find another long list of dangerous plants that are worth to be mentioned as common in western European homes.

Plant NameToxicity LevelSymptoms
HibiscusLowStomach related problems: diarrhea, lack of appetite
BegoniasMediumStomach related problems: diarrhea, vomiting, hypersalivation, serious difficulties in drinking and eating.

AzaleasLow to HighTremor and difficulties in moving but also will affect the heart rate and blood pressure. Also the most common symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting and drooling will appear
Elephant earsLowVomiting and diarrhea
Baby’s breath, Evening primrose, Aloe, Amaryllis, Autumn crocus, and CyclamenLow to MediumVomiting and diarrhea among the most common.
ChrysanthemumMediumOn top of the most common uncontrolled loss of liquid (diarrhea and vomiting) also lack of coordination is common
NarcissusHighFrom vomiting, diarrhea to heart problems. Bulbs are the most poisonous part of the plant
DieffenbachiaLow to MediumOral inflammation, coming with excess drooling
HyacinthLow to Very High (if the bulb has been eaten)Bulb is the most dangerous part and, in case of ingestion, can seriously harm the cat digestive system potentially leading to death. Also tremor and blood pressure issues are common
KalanchoeLow to Medium (rare)Gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea and pain. In very uncommon cases also collapse and seizures
English yewVery HighThis plant, if ingested, can cause death due to a presence of chemical able to compromise the normal hearth function
The bulbs of tulips daffodilsMediumIn addition to the common loss of liquid (vomit and diarrhea) heart issues might arise and breathing problem might arise
OleanderHighFrom vomiting diarrhea to more serious problem like collapse, inability to walk, seizure and even death
Peace LilyMedium to HighIn addition to vomiting the ingestion of this plant can cause muscle problem, aggressive behaviour or constant need for sleeping
Pothos, Devil’s IvyLowIn general mouth irritation and consequent drooling
Poinsettia (christmas plant)LowIn general vomiting and drooling
ScheffleraMediumVomiting, drolling, and oral irritation
MistletoeLow to High (depending on the quantity)From vomiting/diarrhea to seizure and death
Jade PlantMediumVomiting to lack of energy, altered heart rate, and constant need for sleep

Among all the above, I would take particular care of the following plant as the most popular and likely to be at your home at the time of speaking :

  • Tulip: one of the most common houseplants due to the beauty of its simplicity. Hopefully, its toxicity is from low to medium (depending on the amount ingested) with vomiting and diarrhea as typical symptoms;
  • Hyacinth: this beautiful flowering plant, although very common, it has only a moderate effect on your cat if ingested. Symptoms vary from vomiting to tremors and difficulty in breathing and heart rate alteration;
  • Kalanchoe: this little flowering plant has again only mild poisoning effect although can get really serious (with seizures) only if eaten in a large quantity;
  • Oleander: although quite common, especially in the south of the USA, this is a real threat. Indeed, it contains a dangerous chemical able to affect heart rate and blood pressure leading, in extreme cases, seizure and death. Be careful, this plant is hazardous to humans as well (out from infants reach)

Others, like the English need to be mentioned as, although not are not very common indoors, is lethal for cats.

I want to be clear here, this is NOT an exhaustive list of all potentially dangerous plants to cats (they are several hundred!). However, it is quite likely that the above list have you fully covered as those plants are the ones most typically found for indoor applications. 

For more detailed information on all cat-dangerous plants, I do recommend ASPCA. You can find the link at the end of this post.

Arrange: Prevent Your Cat Reaching Your Herbs

Now you know that some herbs and plants that you might be thinking in hosting in your house might be a threat for your playful furry companion. Nonetheless, you do not want to give them away (in case you ), or you might want to buy one(s) anyway.

In such a case, my first suggestion is to avoid the ones classified as potentially lethal and choose (if you really have to) only those with a Low to Medium level of toxicity. Hence, I would absolutely avoid St. John’s wort, Lillies, and Foxglove.

This choice will guarantee that, in the majority of unfortunate cases, your cat will suffer only mild symptoms that a veterinarian is likely to solve quickly. However, you need to find ways to make difficult or, impossible, for your cat to reach such plants in the first place. There are two types of tactics:

  1. Active: In this case, you are placing distance and barriers that actively prevent your cat from reaching your herbs;
  2. Passive: in this case, you are hindering your cat from reaching your herbs by giving him alternative activities.

Let’s dive in these strategies.

Active: Make Your Herb Inaccessible

You might find many suggestions around the web how to achieve this. However, many of them look impractical to me. For instance, are you thinking of keeping your potted plants away (in a closed room) when you are not home?

Please, do not do it. You cannot, every time before going to work or to bed, move your 10/15 pots in the kitchen. It is just impractical and potential source of damage for your herbs and yourself (how many times have dropped a pot? Me…too many). Others, even worse, propose to place your cat in a room without plants. Again, I would not feel right in confining my friend in a room. A cat needs to move around, explore. Hence what can you do?

Wall or Hanging Garden

Floor and furniture are not the only places where a pot can be placed. Containers can also stay on the wall or hanging around! This does not only give a touch of class to your living room but also make it really difficult for your cat to access them. 

Online you can find a large variety of “hanging planter containers” (you can have a look on Amazon) that allows you to hang your potted herbs from the ceiling or to have them on the wall thanks to a specific structure. This is for me the best solution, as a good compromise between effort/money and results.

Tip 2: in case of a wall garden, please avoid those supports that have pockets as very easy to climb (actually your cat will try to climb them as a source of fun for him).

Tip 1: even if your potted herbs are hanging from the ceiling, this does not automatically guarantee that your pet will not reach them. Indeed, it might climb a dresser sideboard nearby and from there jump to your hanging herbs. So, whenever you can, you should take care to avoid nearby tall furniture.

Tip 3: many suggest to use stands. However, the majority of them are very light and easy to trip over in case your cat jumps on top of it. This will break the pot of your plant, an accident that can cause injuries in case of a clay pot. Hence, avoid stands whenever possible.

A stand for a plant? In general a bad idea with a cat around

Another solution might be the use of a protective net. This net, in aluminum or plastic, similar to those used for birds, can be found in many retailers online (I do suggest butterfly net as pretty tight so its paw cannot access the plant).

However, although useful, these nets have a significant drawback: your cat can anchor to your net and drop it with your plant on the floor. This is definitely something that you might not want to see after a long day at work.

Finally, wall shelves can be another option. They have the advantage of being used for other purposes as well (books shelf). However, they require a bit more DIY compared to a wall garden. So, if only for herb-purposes, I would go for one of the other options listed above.

Passive: Keep Your Cat Entertained

This is not a guarantee of success, however, has the advantage to no effect features/furniture of the room where you place your herbs. Your cat chews your herbs (also) as a game/source of distraction or curiosity. Hence, if you provide enough distractions, it is improbable that your cat will turn to your potted herbs.

There are countless toys that you can find in the market to keep your cat busy. From food puzzle, scratching bench, to even cat TV (you can have an idea checking in Amazon). So the possibilities are really endless here, up to your imagination.

Cats can be easily distracted by the images moving on a TV

Another solution, definitely the most rewarding for a pet owner, although quite difficult to achieve, is pet training. This, to be honest, would be easier with dogs than cats. One of the most popular techniques is called “click training.” In simple words, it consists of associating a behavior you want to reinforce (or discourage) to a sound followed by punishment or reward. The timing at which the sound is produced is essential. Indeed, it can be produced by a clicker (or any other device) at the exact moment you notice the action you want to reinforce or inhibit.

However, you need to balance the amount of reward you are giving (cat biscuits) so as not to cause another problem (a cat expecting food all time). In such an approach, timing is everything. For an introduction to click training, I do recommend a few resources at the end of this post.

Discourage

This technique is among all, the easiest to apply, and my favorite among the three. Indeed, it consists of placing on your plant, or around it, some substances that only the cat away. How? Is this dangerous?

Not at all. Indeed, cats, similarly to a dog, have a developed sense of smell. Hence, something that might be slightly aromatic for us might be a strong and pungent odor for your cat. Which substance should you use then?

Many aromas and scent that you can easily find at home might be an excellent deterrent to your friend. Place pepper over the soil to have a significant effect in keeping your cat away. This is not a problem for your plant. Of course, you might need to renew your pepper after 2 weeks or less as it goes get washed away when you water the plant.

Another well-known substance to keep your cat away is lemon, whose pungent odor is hated by your cat. You can use lemon in two ways: 1) spraying a solution of water and lemon (one teaspoon of lemon per liter of water) on your plant leaves 2) place some lemon peel around the plant.

I would not go for the latter as cats are allergic to citrus and in the (unlikely as cats hate the smell) of ingestion your cat might suffer serious skin problems, seizure and even death. By the way, remember to never use pure lemon juice as you might burn the plant due to its high acidity.

The same as above applies to the recommended coffee grounds (here a detailed article on its proven benefits), another scent not liked by cats. Again, as another acidic substance, please do not exaggerate, just a 1-2 teaspoon for a small pot should be more than enough for a week or two.

One of the most effective and original ways to keep your cat away is to use sheep pellets. These are natural plant fertilizer, and hence suitable for your plant. At the same time, their smell is detested by cats that will stay away. Remember that you cannot exaggerate as it still a fertilizer (packed with nutrients) and cannot be replaced too often (follow the instructions on the packaging). In such a case, you might use one of the above (or below) approaches.

Online a few people suggest vinegar. Avoid it altogether as it might quickly kill your plant.

If you do want bothering in cutting lemon, sprinkling pepper, or buying special fertilizer, you might simply opt for a commercially proven solution. In your local shop or online, you can find a variety of sprays. However, make sure to ask and check in the package, that such repellent is safe to plant. One brand pretty famous is Nature’s Mace that you can buy in Amazon for a few dollars. 

The only real disadvantage of the “discourage” approach is that they need a regular application of the cat repellent substance. Indeed, whatever it is, the scent does not last for a very long time (a few weeks at most). 

The main recommendation to succeed with such type of approach is to make it a habit by performing a control/application of the cat repellent on your plants before one other pattern already in your daily routine

For instance, if on weekends, after you woke up just force yourself to check your plant before having breakfast (it only a few minutes). So, after a few times in doing that, you will automatically remember to check your plants when you think of preparing breakfast. I use successfully this technique to create the habit of watering my plants before breakfast.

Herbs That Improve The Health Of Your Cat: A Treat

You also need to know that there are a few herbs that are really beneficial for your cat. So, if you decided to go for one of those, they can indirectly improve the overall health of your friend. Two are pretty famous:

  • Valerian: you probably know this herb for the relaxation effect it has on us. However, this herb is a safe stimulant for cats. They do need to eat it, it is just sufficient the smell of their roots, that can smell from above the soil.
  • Catnip: This is a real treat for your cat. This herb can cause euphoria similarly as marijuana does on humans. It is sufficient to smell the leaves to trigger a pleasant experience of 10 to 30 minutes. This depends on your cat sensitivity, and some cats might even be insensitive to catnip. Cats can control themselves very well, and they usually do not exaggerate on catnip. Also, if they do (by start eating eat), they will only suffer light gastrointestinal problems. If you want your cat to enjoy the effect of such herb in the long term, I suggest to let it available to him only 1 or twice a month. This is because your cat might get used to it becoming less effective.

There are also other herbs beneficial to your cat, but these require processing (such as Goldenseal to cure wounds) or killing your plant to have their roots (as licorice), so they will not be discussed here.

Can Insects On Indoor Herbs Hurt Your Cat?

As mentioned in one of my previous articles insects in an indoor plant is rarely a sign of good things happening. From ants to aphids and ladybugs, they are all indicators of an underlying issue.

However, you are worried that such insects can also hurt your cat. The good news is that the vast majority of plant-related insects are harmless to cats. The only exception is fire ants as might be hanging around farming aphids. Fire ants can provoke severe pain and skin irritation if bigh your cat in a large number but, in general, they are not life-threatening.

Fire ants can cause pain and red skin if they bite your cat

Some herbs can also attract bees and wasps. Their sting can be painful to your pet but definitely nothing life-threatening. However, this might not be the case if your cat is allergic to them. You will notice this immediately after being stung. Your cat will show swelling and respiratory problems. Bring it directly to a veterinarian. 

Interesting enough is more likely that your cat might, indirectly harm your herbs. Indeed, I bet (and hope) that you do not keep your cat confined to the walls of your home and you let him free to roam around your garden area or have a walk around. 

In such a case, your cat can come in contact with other outside plants, where the insect life is way more developed than in indoor plants. This increases the chance to get into contact with aphids. These insects, as discussed in this article can use unique your cat as transportation to your house.

These insects are tiny and now always green in color. This makes them difficult to spot. Once in your home, they can easily reach your herbs (in case they have wings) causing significant problems if left untreated.

Check The Safety of Your Plant Insecticides

For indoor applications, I generally discourage the use of insecticides on a regular base as indoor plants are way less exposed to pests compared to their outdoors counterpart. 

The use of insecticides (especially chemicals) not only make your herbs hard to consume (in case of edible like basil, mint) but also might seriously harm your cat.

Indeed, some substances such as Permethrin, Methomyl, and Carbofuranis, widely used in insecticide, can cause severe problems for your cat if ingested or even by touching.  Respiratory issues, convulsion, hypersalivation, heart problems are only a few of the acute symptoms that your cat might incur. In such a case, just contact is sufficient (especially with Permethrin) to cause severe damage. 

Moreover, the “organic” insecticide might also affect your friend. Indeed, all insecticides with a trace of citrus (mainly used are oranges, lemons due to their aroma) can cause a severe skin rash, seizure, difficult coordination, and even death. This might be a severe problem if you apply such insecticides to your herbs leaves that your cat starts chewing.

Moreover, avoid at all costs insecticides (for plants and not) in pellet form. Indeed your cat will not have any problem in biting confusing them for food if they do not have any particular repellent smell. Avoid also pellet organic fertilizer as, most of the time, their smell can attract cats.

This can cause severe poisoning (as easy to eat in a large amount due to their size) due to chemicals like nitrogen and iron, abundant in fertilizers. The symptoms go from classic diarrhea, vomiting, breathing problems, and severe gastrointestinal pains that might also affect their balance and stability.

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Related Questions

What is cat grass? This term identifies a variety of grass appreciated by cats and safe to eat.

The age of the cat can affect its response to plant toxin? Yes, kittens, due to their reduced size, for instance, can experience more acute effects for the same amount of toxins ingested. On the other hand, severe symptoms for young cats can be lethal for older ones.

Further Reading

https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control/cats-plant-list

21 Tips to grow massive basil

Andrea

A young Italian guy with a passion for growing edible herbs. After moving to the UK 6 years ago in a tiny flat, it was impossible to grow herbs outside. So I start my journey in growing indoor and so I decided to share my knowledge.

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