Friday, May 6, 2011

Puss ‘n’ Roots

Many years ago I had a house full of cats (more than two that I have now) and houseplants – simultaneously. To say that is was an ‘interesting experience’ would be an understatement. My cats were fascinated by the houseplants to a point of obsession. However, I did not appreciate the amount of attention they bestowed upon them – from chewing the leaves, to scattering the soil around the pot, to digging in the pot to prepare the space as a litter box.

My cats were too lazy to go to their litter boxes because there were so many large plants around that made it much more convenient for them. What a mess that was. It took me a few days of hard work - not to mention the amount of gagging caused by revulsion - to undo the damage. But, thankfully, the plants survived the vile attack.

It’s not that my cats were not scolded or disciplined. They were. And it’s not that I didn’t try different techniques to deter them. I did. But they were unwavering rebels. They knew how upset it made me when they used the plants for litter boxes and recreational toys. But they still continued that ravaging, again and again, scurrying away with a mischievous – and satisfied – look when caught in the act. They were determined to break and challenge the rules, to assert their individuality, to remind me that I was not their boss, but their equal. There were even a few unpleasant incidences when my delinquent cats chose to stare me down rather than run away when caught red-handed in one of their ‘unruly’ adventures. With four stubborn adult cats – and a few kittens now and again – my home became quite dysfunctional, quickly.

In fact, as I look back now, my furry menaces did all the things I didn’t want them to do – jumping on kitchen counters, climbing screen doors, pulling at sheer curtains, shredding bed comforters, dragging claws through chair seats, ripping couches, shredding packages of food and so on. Sometimes they would try to behave – fake restraint - while I was there, only to be caught in the act when I returned home from work or an outing. The minute I stepped inside the house I could hear the ‘thud’ of a cat as it landed on the kitchen floor after jumping off the forbidden counter. She knew she shouldn’t be on there but she did it anyway. She did it to let me know that she could if she chose to. She did it to remind me that she would do damn well whatever she pleased whenever she pleased. Stubborn? As cats usually are. Defiant? Always.

It’s without a doubt that my cats were more dangerous for the plants than the plants were for them. I did buy them kits of grass and it held them over for awhile. Eventually they’d grow tired of that and return to my potted foliage for their amusement. They chomped on parts of the plants, slapped leaves with their furry paws and dragged their claws through them, shredding the healthiest of foliage. Smaller plants were toppled over and larger plants were dug up for fun or for use as a litter box. Occasionally a leaf or two was ripped away from the plant and the ‘cat and leaf’ sporting event would begin. The paw-slapping of the leaf, as if it was a hockey puck, up and down the hallway, all over the house, and in and out of rooms, went on for the longest time. Sometimes the other cats would join the perpetrator and they’d get a whole game going. It was a favourite pastime for my furry gang - until they got caught. Even then there was resistance. How dare I interrupt!

I sprayed the plants with annoying scents to deter the cats and jet-sprayed the cats with water to protect the plants. The scents wore off, the cats learned to duck the water squirts and the cycle would start all over again. Since I had quite a few cats, each one needed its own solution. Some of my remedies worked for awhile, for almost all my cats...almost. But for the most part they all scoffed at me - young and old - bouncing away in delight whenever I chastised them. With a crazed look in my eyes, I’d wave my arms frantically and threaten each one of them vehemently. By then they’d have run far enough away to be out of my reach, sitting and staring at me with wide eyes bursting with wonder. And amusement. I must’ve been quite a sight.

Sometimes I wonder if that’s really what it was all about: purposely setting out to infuriate me so they could all take pleasure in my crazed response and the sheer ability they had in pushing me off the deep end. Maybe it wasn’t at all about the plants. Just about me. I could imagine them huddled together in the middle of the night as they met to discuss ways to “make the lady lose it and act nutty”, while they rolled around the ground laughing their furry little butts off.

So what is one to do so that cats and plants can live side by side? Is there a way to discipline those incorrigible felines? Of course! Just because my home became dysfunctional doesn’t mean yours should. Cats and houseplants can live together in harmony. It shouldn’t have to come down to choosing one over the other. It just takes a little effort and dedication.

Jaws, Claws & Furry Paws

Let’s start with the facts: you cannot discipline cats like you do dogs. The advantage with owning dogs is that you can place yourself at the top as the ‘alpha’, ‘supreme boss’ or ‘top dog’. Dogs form social hierarchies that are organized in order starting with a leader. The biggest, strongest and smartest one of the group (this should be you) becomes the dominant one while the others serve the role of subordinates. Since dogs believe in social order, and you are (hopefully) the leader, you get to make the decisions, set boundaries, give directions and dish out discipline to your canine who (hopefully) is the follower. Most dogs fit easily into the lower levels of the pack’s pecking order and do what they’re told without challenging the authority or making unnecessary waves.

Cats are quite a different story...

Cats form social groups only by necessity. The arrangement between felines is based on respecting territory, not the ‘top cat’. There are no ‘top cats’ in the feline world. Novice cat owners make the mistake of thinking that cats will react and be trained like dogs, but experienced owners know different; they’ve learned the hard way. Your cat does not think of you as the leader or dominant figure but rather as an equal companion and someone they can trust.

Direct correction or punishment of your cat will only result in misbehavior when you are absent. Cats are not dumb. The minute you step out the door, the punishment goes with you. Squirting your cat with a water bottle as soon as he approaches your houseplants will definitely have him scurrying away. But will it teach him that approaching the plants is a bad thing? No. It’ll teach him that approaching the plants is a bad thing when you are present and holding the spray bottle. Your cat will move away from the plants when you approach with the sprayer because he is learning to be afraid of you, which can be a bad thing since it compromises trust.

He may run away from you but the bottle itself has absolutely no effect on him. If you place a bottle near your houseplants, out of your hands, your cat may sniff it out of curiosity, but it will not deter him from mangling your plants. In your cat’s eyes, the bottle you are holding becomes an extension of your arm so in his mind it’s you that is squirting, not the bottle. Furthermore, punishment has to occur within a few short seconds – 3 to 5 - of your cat’s misbehavior otherwise it has no effect. You’d have to follow your cat around 24 hours a day - every day - with your spray bottle to catch him ‘in the act’ for any discipline to have an effect.

You can solve a problem, somewhat, while you are home and trailing behind your cat, but you are seriously underestimating your cat’s intelligence if you believe that your cat will behave according to the way you expect him to as soon as you are gone or at a safe distance. You can place spray bottles all over your house and beside every single plant – your cat will not lose any sleep over it. You will.

Unlike dogs that can be taught to behave a certain way and retain it, you have to come up with more creative solutions for cats. With felines you have to employ remote strategies that will work around the clock whether you are at home, asleep, at work or out and about. Punishments - or rather deterrents - have to be carried out by devices that are always present. The benefit to this is that you will always be ‘the good guy’ - preserving a trusting relationship with your cat - by allowing the environment to influence your furry pal into behaving in a certain manner. By placing booby traps around forbidden areas in your home, your cat will decide – on his own – that certain things are better left alone. Cats are far from being submissive but they do respect limitations set by forces that should not be challenged. Don’t mess with higher powers.

If you ever return home to a cat that has activated a booby trap, you may just find a wide-eyed, bushy-tailed bundle of energy circling around your ankles, meowing with enthusiasm, grateful for your trusting (and safe) presence and eager to share the horror story. “Am I ever glad to see you. You’ll never believe what happened to me! I have to warn you about the danger in the living room before you get hurt...”

Have Your Plant and Keep It Too

As a wise cat owner - before even planning an effective method to deter your pet from destroying your plant kingdom – your first step will probably be to educate yourself on which houseplants may be toxic. For the most part, cats seem to instinctively avoid poisonous or irritant-causing plants. Through all the years that I’ve had both cats and plants living side by side, many of my leafy troops were considered toxic. Not once did I have to deal with an unfortunate incident; perhaps I was very lucky. But for safety’s sake you might want to consider limiting your collection to nontoxic types at least – or especially – while your little willful fur ball is obsessed with destroying, climbing, chewing and eating your plants. A prudent act can prevent mishaps.

Now that toxicity is out of the way...

What could be more exciting for kitty than having a green-filled playground to call his own? If your home resembles an Amazon rainforest and you feel like you’re on an African safari whenever you stroll through areas that are overrun by your potted plants, you may find it beautiful, but your cat will consider it an invitation to paint the town red.

From your cat’s point of view, your plants are a snack, an entertainment center, toys to slap around, trees to climb and dirt to dig in. Your plant kingdom is the ultimate feline carnival. Unfortunately, the ‘toys’ will eventually become shoddy from excess rough play – claw marks on stems, chewed up foliage, mangled leaves around the base of the plant, foul top soil, overturned pots and dirt spilled around wooden floors or over plush carpeting.

Words of wisdom: shut down that carnival, pronto!

Cats hate to be surprised, that’s why water squirts, hissing, clapping and sudden noises stop unwarranted behavior – temporarily. In your presence these tactics work but only because your cat is afraid of you. But once you’re gone, all your efforts are futile – it’s all history! So you need round-the-clock deterrents.

If your cat is using the soil as a litter box, there are a number of ways to deal with the problem. Adding a layer of river rocks as mulch over the top of the soil works well. Covering the exposed soil with landscape fabric, small pine cones, shells and crushed, sharp stones is another effective alternative to discouraging your cat from digging it up.

Aluminum foil is another helpful – albeit less attractive - option. Crimp it around the rim of your plant’s pot, cover the top of the soil with it and shape it around the stem. The sudden noise will startle your cat into scurrying away. Since cats do not like the feel of aluminum foil under their paws, even if they get past the rim, they will not stay long on the surface. For further effectiveness, you can surround the base of the plant with the foil to keep the cats away from that area entirely. To ease watering, punch holes in the aluminum foil. If your pet loses complete interest in your houseplants further down the line, you may be able to slowly remove the aluminum foil permanently.

Fellow houseplant lovers have offered other ways to discourage the persistent ambushing of your plants. One suggestion is to place layers of double-sided tape in a crisscross style across the planter. This booby trap will be irritating to your cat’s paws and hopefully discourage a repeat visit. Other pet owners place pieces of cardboard across the top of the soil with a hole in the middle to accommodate the stem of the plant. With the top completely covered, your cat will not be able to get to the soil of the plant and hopefully move onto something else.

You can ‘mine’ the areas around your plants with other ‘booby’ traps such as:

- Shallow pans of water that will cause heart palpitations for your cat if he accidentally steps in them.

- Wind chimes that will startle your pet enough to have him heading for the hills.

- Electric fans that will blow him away (no pun intended).

- Upturned carpet runners, which are tough on little paws. Ouch!

If your feline is not a soil disturber but a leaf chewer, you’ll have to make the leaves unsavory. There are commercial repellents – bitter apple, bitter orange - available at most pet shops that you can spray the leaves of your plant with to discourage kitty from biting or eating them. It's an added cost but you may decide it's worth the investment. These products can also be sprayed on many other items around the home – not just plants – that cats are particularly stubborn about. Obviously, because each cat is different, these sprays do not work with all of them.

Cats enjoy chewing on greens as part of their inquisitive play antics but sometimes it’s simply because they are craving vegetable matter. Even though they are carnivores, they do need some vegetation in their diet. Grass is readily available outdoors but it’s up to you to provide this indoors. Oat grass, catnip and catmint are enjoyable to your cat – and safe. Adding some lettuce or parsley to food bowls or switching to a food product with higher fiber might also make a difference. Small kits of ready-to-grow cat grass are found at pet supply stores and are a tasty treat you can offer your cat. Alternate between greenery offered to your feline to keep the menu appealing. Bear in mind that even with all this greenery offered to them, your cats may still chew on your houseplants.

If you have very large, tall plants in your home, your cat may decide at one point to climb them – if he hasn’t already. You might consider investing in a cat condo as a substitute for climbing the plant. Since these items can be quite pricey, it may be better to build one yourself. If you are not the handyperson type, pick up a case of beer, strike up the barbeque and invite some friends over who are handy to help you out.

If your plants are close to the windows, make sure that your cats have their own seat near them. A cat tree or some shelving that allows them access to the windows will avoid your plants being knocked over to make room for a furry snooze. The sunniest windowsill belongs to your cat whether you like it or not. Gently but firmly, your plants will be pushed out of the way and knocked to the floor – along with any other offending objects that have no business on the windowsill. Your cat will make sure that over time you fully understand this simple but important fact.

Instead of being frantic and chasing your cats through the house, prevention is the key. Cover the tops of soil, move plants up higher so the cats can't reach them, create barriers when necessary and booby trap areas that are overly tempting. With prevention and a little imaginative relocation of plants, you can all live in harmony. Try different tips and tricks until you find the perfect cure. And remember that some plant damage, especially while your pet is learning to respect boundaries, is inevitable.


  1. I'm hoping to get myself a kitten or two soon - we'll see how well that goes with all my plants. It never was much of a problem with Gandalf (who's living with my mother and brothers now) - he grew up an outdoor cat with plenty of grass to eat and I taught him early on that indoor plants were taboo by hissing in his face every time he so much as sniffed one. Once he had to become an indoor cat after we moved, he'd occasionally chew on the plants with the most 'grass-like' leaves (Cyperus, of course, Beaucarnea, Pandanus...), but mostly he was still well-behaved.
    I'm planning to keep those plants in the kitchen, which'll be out-of-bounds for cats anyway, and if they go chewing on other plants, well, they'll have to stay out of the living room as well while I'm not home. We'll see. Living without cats might be easier, but it's also a lot more boring!

  2. Ivynettle, my cats are not too bad with the plants either. Once in awhile they'll chew on one particular plant, which (you guessed it) has grass-like leaves, but for the most part they pretty much leave them alone. And I'm always willing to put in a little extra effort so I can have my pets. The house is much more interesting with them in it. I wouldn't have it any other way.