What is it with cats and houseplants? No matter how many toys they have, they find chewing and playing with plants irresistible. Our cat, Bob, is incapable of leaving my plants alone, no matter how many times I yell, “No!” and drag him away. That I continue to try indicates that someone isn’t learning their lesson, and it isn’t Bob. I have hit on some tricks, however, that make my houseplants less tempting, though not totally Bob-proof.
When it comes to houseplants, cats seem to like to eat the plant, play with the foliage, and/or dig or lay in the pot. Let’s examine each one.
Eating houseplants seems to be Bob’s favorite horticultural activity. It is an important behavior to discourage in a cat, because some plants can make cats very sick, or even kill them. Even those plants that aren’t toxic can cause a cat to vomit, or if eaten in quantity, cause an intestinal blockage.
There are way too many houseplants to list, so check the “Toxic and Non-Toxic Plant List for Cats” on the ASPCA website to be sure your houseplants aren’t toxic to your cat.
To keep your cats from chewing on foliage, spray it with something that makes it unappealing. Cats do not like the smell or taste of citrus, so buy a bitter lemon spray, or make a homemade spray of lemon or orange juice diluted with water and spray it on the leaves.
Bob the cat. Photograph by Therese Ciesinski.
Some cats won’t eat a plant, but will attack it, bending or breaking stems and shredding leaves, or knocking the pot over. They can’t help it; it’s their hunting instinct. Leaves in motion are begging to be pounced on and subdued.
To keep Bob from tipping the pots, I avoid using ones that taper, and choose those – especially ceramic pots – that have wide, heavy bottoms or built-in saucers. I’ve found that these are less likely to tip. There are also non-toxic, reusable putties you can buy that will adhere the pot to its surface but won’t damage the finish of whatever it is sitting on.
Digging is a real no-no, a behavior that needs to be nipped in the bud. If your cat is using the soil as a litter box, before scolding or taking other measures, make sure that:
There are enough litter boxes (at least one per cat), they are clean and filled with a kind of litter that appeals to the cat. Dr. Elsey’s makes Cat Attract cat litter, which my cats prefer over anything else.
The cat doesn’t have an illness, such as a urinary tract or kidney infection. Cats will sometimes change their litter box habits because it hurts to urinate and they associate the box with the pain. By choosing another place to pee, they also might be signaling to their owner that they are in distress.
If neither of those are the problem, try these tips:
Put small river rocks or gravel on top of the soil. The heavier the better. Pinecones, glass marbles, or seashells can work as well, as long as the cat doesn’t knock them out of the pot and play with them.
Aluminum foil laid on top of the soil is also effective, but isn’t very attractive.
Scatter orange or lemon peels on the soil, or use a citrus spray.
Spray the pot with diluted vinegar. Cats don’t like the smell. Do not spray vinegar on the leaves, it could kill the plant.
As for Bob and me, we’ve come to a truce. He will never completely ignore my plants; it’s just not in his nature. As long as he’s safe, I tolerate some chewing or playing – not digging – as the price of a happy feline/houseplant coexistence.
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