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(Lighting the Way to Less Toxic Living)




By Gina Spadafori
Pet Columnist

Pet-Safe Plants Enhance Indoors for Cats

My friend Sonia recently "stole" her uncle's cat for a couple of weeks while he was on vacation. She decided the gregarious orange tabby was lonely in an empty apartment and she took him into her own home for the duration of her uncle's trip.

The cat settled in happily, but Sonia worried, "My houseplants, what if they're poisonous?" After a quick check on the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center Web site (, the apartment soon held fewer plants, but still one happy cat. Sonia then started thinking of adding other plants that are safe for nibbling, just to make the cat even happier. A good idea, I assured her, even in the short run.

For the indoor-only cat, plants are an important part of an ideal environment that should also include a variety of toys, cat trees and scratching posts, and screened porches or window perches that allow the intriguing scents of the hazardous world outside safely into a cat's life.

If your cat loves to nibble on houseplants, make sure poisonous plants are not on the menu. In addition to the Animal Poison Control Center's online reference, "The Cornell Book of Cats" (Villard, $35) also lists those plants that have no place in a house with cats. Among the most dangerous are dieffenbachia, lily of the valley and philodendron. Various ivies and yews can be troublesome, too, and the bulbs of plants popular for "forcing" into early indoor bloom -- such as amaryllis, daffodils and tulips -- can cause problems for the cat who likes to dig and chew.

The other problem with cats and houseplants is strictly irritation -- not to the pet's system, but to the owner's. Some cats are industrious destroyers of household greenery, while others like to kick dirt around or even use larger pots as litter boxes. All of which makes perfect sense to your cat, annoying as it may be to you.
Can people, cats and plants coexist? With an understanding of your cat's needs and a consistent approach to the problem, you bet they can.

Understand that your cat needs and wants plants in your home. Indulge your pet by keeping planters of sprouting grasses growing in an accessible place for nibbling. Special blends of seeds for cats are available in pet stores and specialty shops, or you can purchase rye-grass seeds at the nursery.

Catnip, too, is something that's always better when fresh, as is valerian. While not all cats react to the pleasures of these plants, those who do will appreciate your keeping them in-house, and using fresh cuttings to recharge cat posts and toys.

When your cat has his own plants, you can work on keeping him away from yours. Plants on the floor or on low tables are the easiest targets, so make your houseplants less accessible to the 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 the greenery 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 any grocery store. Whenever you find what your cat doesn't like, keep reapplying it to reinforce the point. You can also discourage your pet by shooting him with the spray from a water bottle when you see him in the plants.

Pot your plants in heavy, wide-bottomed containers, and cover the soil with rough, decorative rock to discourage digging. Foil and waxed paper are also useful deterrents to diggers, but I don't like to recommend those products because you're going to get tired of looking at that foil. Decorative rock can stay in place forever.

Remember that resolving behavior problems often takes time and involves a bit of compromise on your part. Give your cats the greens he wants, protect him from the ones that might hurt him and make the rest less attractive to him. And one day, a lush indoor garden will be yours for both you and your cat to enjoy.