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Curious cats: Exposing the hidden dangers of houseplants

Winston loves biting the leaves of the money plant (Pachira aquatica), which is in the mallow family and is cat-safe. “He bites and bites and bites, but never eats,” according to his owner.

People often wonder if they can have both cats and houseplants.

Much depends on your cat’s personality (and yours). Is your cat curious about every new thing that comes into the house? Are your cats diggers or climbers? Do they embrace the challenge of reaching a plant on a high shelf or behind a barrier? And can you restrict yourself to cat-safe plants, tolerate some plant damage and try different strategies to keep both cats and plants healthy?

Karolina Burstrom’s cat Winston “becomes completely fixated when I bring home a new plant,” she said, noting that “he never jumps up on the counter, but if I put a plant up there, he will be up there within a minute.” Although he doesn’t eat the leaves, all of her plants have “not-so-beautiful bite marks” on them. Her other cat shows no interest in houseplants.

Cat owner Kristi Perez has settled for keeping a fake orchid in her house. When she tried to root a cutting of a jade plant indoors, her cats waited until she left the house, then batted it off the kitchen counter and played in the spilled potting soil.

But Donna Marcus said her cats “ignore orchids and eat roses.”

Digging up dirt

For some cats, the potting soil is much more attractive than whatever is growing in it, especially if the pot is big enough for napping and playing. Monica Spitzer’s foster kittens “never ate any of my plants,” she said, “but they loved attacking the leaves and digging in the potting medium – they made a huge mess.”

Bare soil is so tempting. To prevent cats from uprooting or depotting plants, you can mulch the plants with stones or pinecones, which most cats don’t like. Other suggestions include putting citrus peels in the pots as a scent deterrent or placing aluminum foil or wire mesh around the plant’s base.

Giving cats something green that they are encouraged to munch is another strategy. Occasional access to cat grass (pots of sprouted wheat, oat, rye or barley) or catnip may satisfy your cat’s need to commune with greenery. Some cats like catnip (though if more than a leaf or two is eaten, in some cats it can cause vomiting or diarrhea), and others react the same way to the smell of dried valerian. Winston still bites Burstrom’s houseplants even though he gets catnip.

You can grow your own cat grass with packets of “cat grass” seed, or simply buy oat, barley, rye or wheat seeds in bulk. Grow a small pot at a time, using purchased organic potting mix. Fill a small container at least two-thirds with potting mix, sprinkle seeds on top, cover them with a quarter inch of potting mix, water lightly and cover until the seeds have sprouted. It takes a few days for the grains to sprout. Water lightly, but do not saturate. Approximately a week later, or when the grasses are roughly 4-6 inches high, you can introduce your cat to the grass.

Tanya Kucak gardens organically. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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