Ministry of Controversy

Cats in the Garden – Solutions Only

PhilikaterCat-loving readers will no doubt remember our recent dust-up over the issue of cats in the garden.  That post was prompted by a cat-in-garden photo illustrating a magazine piece about wildlife-friendly gardens – a strange juxtaposition, at least to my eyes.

Well, I was happy to notice Horticulture Magazine addressing this issue head-on, but in a solutions-oriented way, not a controversial one.  (Though Lord knows, the topic is controversial no matter how it’s handled.)  Their article, 4 Ways to Keep Cats out of the Garden, summarizes the problem – that our beloved cats can sometimes be “destructive, irksome troublemakers—especially when they decide to visit neighboring homes without permission! Gardeners are often bothered by a cat who decides to make a mulched bed her litter box, or when cats bother (and potentially kill) birds, butterflies and other wildlife the gardener is trying to attract.”

The author then quickly moved on to possible solutions – chicken wire, cat repellents, repellent plants (news to me!) and good old scare tactics.

In my own garden there’s just one cat who roams freely across it – or would if I didn’t yell at him every time he approaches.  I do that not just to protect my garden and the wildlife in it but to avoid turf-related aggression between him and my three indoor-only cats, who love hanging out on the screened-in porch.  They’re so happy, and so uninterested in escaping to the outdoors, that I had to laugh at the comment on that prior post expressing concern for them: “Keeping them couped up in a house all day is, in my opinion, terribly cruel.”

That may apply to cats who are accustomed to hunting outdoors but not to cats like mine who’ve never been outside except in a cat carrier.

Photo credit.

Posted by on May 21, 2013 at 9:50 am, in the category Ministry of Controversy.
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36 Responses to “Cats in the Garden – Solutions Only”

  1. Matt says:

    I had to laugh when I read that comment about indoor cats. Outdoor cats have a much, much shorter lifespan. So it’s actually terribly cruel to let your cats outside.

    • Carolyn Furman says:

      Everyone is an expert…our two lovely kitties lived for 21 years outdoors. An exception to common wisdom I suppose, and the law of averages. I must say that the Horticulture article was much more sensible and solution oriented than your last foray into the subject. I just count myself lucky not to live in town close to irresponsible pet owners…

      • Matt says:

        I’d say the veterinarians who I take my cats to are indeed experts, but yes, there are exceptions to every rule.

        • Matt says:

          And I should clarify: It’s not that outdoor cats CAN’T have a longer lifespan. It’s just that the probability of getting hit by a car, injured by a predator, or catching a disease spread by ticks or fleas increases greatly by being outside. That’s simple statistics, not anecdotal evidence.

  2. UrsulaV says:

    I always roll my eyes when people say “My cat is too lazy to kill anything!” Whenever they strap cameras to outdoor cats, they find that they’re killing a great many animals and just not bringing them home. It’s not hunger, either–half of it they just kill and leave to rot.

    Seriously, how does anyone know what their cats do when they’re not in the house? If one of my indoor cats gets out, I sure don’t pretend to have any idea what happens in the hours before they turn up on the doorstep and demand to be let back in.

  3. Joel Smith says:

    Personally, I could never feel right keeping my cat indoors all the time. He loves to be outside way too much. I just don’t feel right keeping my family members captive. However, when he began bringing mice and birds in through the dog door, I started feeling responsible for the carnage.

    We’re fortunate enough to live in a tree-rich neighborhood with at least 1 mature maple and/or 1-2 mature ponderosas per 1/10 acre yard and a few smaller landscaping trees and shrubs per yard as well. Already, the birds and squirrels have a leg-up with this network of plant life but to really protect them I’ve been trying to extend their habitat a bit.

    I’ve started by adding 2″x4″s to the back of the fenceposts on our privacy fence out back. They add 4′ of additional height to the top of the 6′ fence and then there is a 1″x1″ that connects the tops of the 2″x4″s. All along that I’m hanging bird houses and bird feeders to encourage them to stay safe.

    Since doing this, I’ve only seen rodent fatalities… which is something I can live with at the moment.

    • susan harris says:

      “He loves to be outside way too much. I just don’t feel right keeping my family members captive. ” Yes, cats who are allowed to hunt outdoors CAN be miserable when no longer allowed outdoors. But I bet your cat would be happy indoors if he’d never been allowed outdoors in the first place.

      • Joel Smith says:

        I’m sure that works most of the time. It worked for another cat I had and in fact my current cat was indoors his first 3 years but it was non-stop chatter, daring escapes, and rambunctious chaos. We built cat gyms, played games two-three times a day. He’s even learned to play catch! -It was absolutely ridiculous. So I finally let him out and what does he do? He sleeps in the garden and poops in the potato patch. I figure if that’s his bliss, then I gotta let him have it. :)

    • anne says:

      Joel, I like your response. You’ve taken your personal needs, your cat’s needs and your environmental needs all into consideration, and come up with a plan.

      So much of this dialog is about defending positions, not solving problems.

  4. John says:

    Thanks for bringing this up. It can be hard for cat people to be objective about the impact of their beloved pets. Just as I would be hugely defensive if someone wrote something about dogs that I didn’t want to hear (sorry, I’m a dog person).

    A quick Google search of “cats and wild birds” indicates that domestic cats kill between 1 and 3.7 billion wild birds every year. That’s a lot of birds. I’m in no way advocating that all cats should be kept inside, just that people are cognizant of the impact of allowing their cats to roam freely and maybe look at ways of mitigating their impact on the natural world.

  5. BooksInGarden says:

    I really appreciate this excellent post by Susan. Healthy organic solutions to gardening problems are, in my opinion, always to be preferred.

    In answer to John, above, I would say that a quick Google search on a topic can get you any answer that you want on a controversy. (Global warming doesn’t exist?) Please search more deeply and get the facts.

    One of the reasons that I, outdoor cat owner, am bemused by the horror that some have of cats invading their gardens is due to the number of species that regularly enter my garden – and probably some of the other readers also. Gophers are almost everywhere, so my veggies are in raised beds with hardware mesh on bottom. I go through periods when I find fresh coyote scat daily in my garden. My response to the coyotes is to keep cat in at night. Other visitors that I find if I go out in the evening are raccoons, skunks and possums. All are welcome. I am not trying to keep any of them out. My garden is meant to be part of nature. I frequently find holes dug in my garden by (I think) skunks digging for grubs. Other holes, I recognize to be due to the gophers. I believe that all of these critters catch other wildlife for eating and are as likely to use my garden as their latrine as any other place. This is nature, not sterile, not like a garden magazine picture, but dirty, organic full of life and death and sometimes poop.

    • John says:

      Perhaps you need to reread my posting which explicitly said “I’m in no way advocating that all cats should be kept inside…” What I meant by that was that I don’t have an opinion on this issue or a horse in this race.

      A search of “cats and wild birds”, which has no loaded words in it, yields two of the first five results from USA Today and the NY Times, two institutions that as far as I know aren’t in the pro-cat or anti-cat camp and therefore probably fairly impartial. The further research that you implore me to conduct indicates (and these are from pro-outdoor cat websites) that the number of wild birds killed by cats might be around 500 million per year. Again, that figure is from pro-cat websites. Further detailed research also leads me to crackpot organizations like National Geographic and various scientific journals. “Getting the facts” might actually be a detriment to your argument.

      Again, I had no opinion on this controversy. I also I have no opinion on whether macaroons should be banned from schools, but if I have an interaction with someone from the pro-macaroon camp who implicitly calls me a moron, you better believe I’m going to quickly become stridently anti-macaroon in a hurry.

    • Laura Bell says:

      Shall I then treat the cats who “visit” my yard the same as I would gophers, skunks, raccoons ? Do what I can to eradicate them? Sure, if they tunneled, I’d use hardware mesh. But cats dig from up top and defecate – does that mean I need to put mesh across my entire garden?

      Cats are not wildlife unless feral. And if they are feral, then they are an invasive species.

      If you are okay with other animals pooping in your garden, perhaps all of the dog owners in your area should be alerted to this fact. I mean, if it’s okay for your cat to use my backyard as a latrine, the same should be true for my dog & your yard, right? I’ll send her right over.

      • BooksInGarden says:

        As I say, many animals poop in my garden. This is nature. I have found plenty of dog poop in my front yard. Shortly after I moved to my present house, before I put a fence up, a large dog came in to my backyard and killed one of my cats while I was only a few feet away. I was heartbroken. I found the owner and told her. She apologized. I got my fence up and I am now friendly with dog owner – that was my solution. Why is cat poop so much worse than wild animal poop or dog poop? None of it is sterile. Cats are less scared of people than wild animals so they are caught at it more often. Most of my solutions are to go with the flow. I put down mesh on top of my veggie beds. So animals poop in the rest of the garden, I can live with this.

        John, I did read your reply, completely and I answered very poorly. I apologize. The guesstimate about cats killing billions does not stand up to scientific rigor. That was my point and I did not do a good job of making it. Newspapers pass on all sorts of information that is not always correct. I go to the sources if I want to evaluate newspaper articles. Who did the study? Who funded the study? How was the study conducted? I recommend “Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients” by Ben Goldacre to see how bad the situation can be with disinformation.

      • Monish says:

        Yes dear….that means mesh across the surface of your garden! I cut my mesh fencing (any would work) in strips so it is easier to apply to freshly dug areas- then mulch over the top so you don’t see it. Works.

        • Laura Bell says:

          I should not have to mesh my entire garden because you refuse to control your pet. I have a fence for just that reason. Cats are the only creatures that come to my garden & poop specifically where I will run into it. Raccoons, opossums, skunks, rats, hawks – they all go elsewhere. Because they have digestive tracts similar to ours, their feces harbor bacteria that can be harmful to humans, especially to pregnant women & the babies they carry.

          I have live-capture traps set up in my yard now & then to capture actual wildlife interlopers that steal what little food I can grow in my limited space. If you have no problem with your cat roaming in my yard, I have no problem with taking your cat to the animal shelter if it ends up in a cage in my yard.

    • Laura Bell says:

      BTW – the coyote you see evidence of on your property is probably hunting your cat. Letting kitty go a-hunting might be what brings the predator to your yard in the first place.

  6. John says:

    I’ve pretty much always had at least one cat. The current one is indoor-only and the few times he has gotten out the door he was no problem to capture and bring back inside. Most of the time he just wants to sit in the windows and watches the birds and lizards in the garden. It doesn’t seem to bother him at all to be cooped up indoors. What I do to satisfy his once-in-a-while spazz out sessions is I allow him into part of the house that he normally is not allowed in, like the guest room or the basement. He gets his jollies hunting god-knows-what down there and the wild life outside gets to live another day. Maybe when he gets really old and lazy I will allow him supervised excursions with me while I weed but that will be far in the future.

    The town I work in does not allow free-roaming pets including cats. All pets must be tagged and chipped and you have to pay a fee just to own one. Cats must be on a leash if outdoors (more so to keep them out of the street and neighbors yards). People have these elaborate clothes line type of contraptions that they hook their cats leash to so they can frolic in the grass but stay inside the property. I know it sounds harsh and plenty of people are shocked to hear about it but every day that I drive through this town to get to the office I notice one very clear advantage to the strict rules – no dead pets on the roads!

  7. Troy says:

    Not sure what predators are in your area, but with the coyotes, hawks, owls, and others here outdoor cats don’t tend to last too long… The ones still around have at least learned not to come around the garden while I have the hose running!

  8. Brian says:

    Not to weigh in on either side, but if cats weren’t controlling the bird population we’d have a different problem. At 500 Million a year that would really add up.

    B

  9. Stella B says:

    We live in a high-coyote neighborhood so we are blessedly free of the little feline rascals. The coyotes enjoy ratting too.

  10. Laurie Lewis says:

    I am missing posts by Michelle.Will we see a post by her anytime soon?

  11. Meg Shinn says:

    Susan, glad you saw our post, and thanks for sharing it. I hope the tips help someone. I so enjoy Garden Rant, by the way!
    Meg Shinn, editor, Horticulture

  12. Susan says:

    To those asking what to do about cats who use their garden beds as litter boxes (and I haven’t yet received my issue of Horticulture; slow post office here), for many years Gardener’s Supply has had plastic grids that have points on one side. You lay the flat side down on the area you want to keep cats off of, and the points are facing up to deny kitty a place to squat. At least, I’m assuming they still carry that product. Just a thought – that and I’m a firm believer in keeping my cats indoors from day 1. They won’t miss what they’ve never known.

    • Beth Urie says:

      Cheap alternative to the anti-cat mats: plant a grid of short pieces of bamboo that stick up an inch or two above ground (cheap IF you have old bamboo, otherwise improvise). I’ve done this to keep dogs from tromping through hostas
      and daylilies, and to ‘close’ a cat-rest.

  13. Overall, I would say that outdoor cats do kill many birds. They are very bad for island ecosystems. I think it is safer for them to be indoors.

  14. Joel Smith says:

    You know, I also wonder about the numbers. I’m curious to see figures for wild bird mortality rates as applied to the urban/suburban environment specifically. I’m curious how many die flying into windows, etc… I feel like that might give us a better perspective on how big the “cat problem” is. (One source: http://www.sibleyguides.com/conservation/causes-of-bird-mortality/ suggests 100 million deaths from windows alone.)

    I do whole-heartedly agree that feral cats (fish, snakes and dogs too in many locations) are having a huge impact on native ecosystems. This is an issue that needs to be addressed widely on a local level. Perhaps with better funding for live capture and release sterilization programs our feral cat population would dwindle its way slowly into submission.

    I’m sure someone’s brought this up before, but it seems likely that the underlying reasons urban/suburban wild birds fall prey to cats so often is due to loss of their natural habitat. Perhaps the lack of biodiversity in the landscape around urban/suburban settings is making these animals more vulnerable to predation. Add that to a large number of cats and many birds don’t stand a chance.

  15. Eve says:

    I use hot peppers. We grow a Thai hot pepper plant a year just to have dried peppers to scatter in the garde, It seems to keep both the racoons and cats away from my veggies. I’m not voting on the indoor/outdoor issue, but I HATE cat poop in my garden beds and imagine I wouldn’t want the racoons fighting with my cats if I did have one in my household.

  16. skr says:

    Except for the expensive elctronic contraptions, I have tried all those suggestions and more (coyote and cougar urine, a dog), and none of them work. Well chicken wire works but is completely unacceptable. I even have a slingshot and a bucket of marbles. Let me tell you, I have become a crack shot. That just taught those damn cats where to go so that I couldn’t get a clean shot from the house. If I didn’t live in the city these days, I would be using our good ol’ farm solution to vermin, my Ruger.

  17. Amanda says:

    In my experience, the presence of domestic cats does have an impact on the wildlife levels in a garden. By wildlife I mean birds, rodents, and the wild animals that prey upon them.

    A local public garden had kept domestic cats as a way to control rodents in the garden. The cats were rarely found to have caught any rodents, but their scent deterred the pests. However, a large garden in a city is not only a natural space for people, but a safe haven for some wildlife species. The cats presence made the garden inhospitable to these species.

    Eventually, the cats disappeared, and the garden had received so many complaints that they did not replace them. Within a month of the cats’ disappearances the rodent levels were above many visitors’ comfort levels. I heard of two visitors actually accidentally stepping on mice as they meandered down the garden pathways. Birds (and more noticeably, songbird) returned around the same time.

    Within the next three months nature stepped in to restore balance. Birds of prey began to roost in the trees, a coyote became a regular visitor, etc. The cats have been gone for a few years, and the rodent population is within tolerance levels of most visitors.

    Although I miss the companionship of the cats, I have enjoyed seeing wildlife on my more recent visits. Yes, a home garden or a botanic garden’s mission may not be to harbor wildlife. But a garden is not (like our homes) a sterile place, separated from the other species that share our environment. The flowers, herbs, trees, shrubs, and other plants in the garden are part of the food web. If a cat is allowed outdoors, then owners should at least be aware of and at most partially responsible for the actions of their cats. If that is even possible.

  18. Batsheva says:

    If you want to encounter the biggest destroyer of bird life, look in the mirror. The destruction of habitat wrought by our houses, roads, cities, suburbs, industrial “parks,” farms, golf courses, playgrounds, hydroelectric dams, college campuses and gardens (yes) dwarf anything that mere felines could accomplish.

  19. Erin says:

    The bottom line for me is that I don’t think it’s right to shut up my cat indoors all the time. Everything that exists on this earth has a certain footprint. I don’t pretend to know what is right for other cat owners, but my cat who was originally a stray, loves to be outdoors. She likes to garden with me, to paw at the plants and chase flies. And if that brings a world of self-righteous, indignation upon me that’s just fine. I’m a country girl at heart and so is my cat. We like to be outdoors, and I would never shut her up indoors, it would break her heart and mine.

  20. Todd says:

    I agree with the above comment about red peppers. I have used those for quite a while now and don’t seem to have any problems. But then again I live in a place where we don’t have that many neighborhood cats, may it just gives me peace of mind, who knows, lol.

  21. RW says:

    In an urban setting there really isn’t a “natural” habitat for cats to affect. Most urban birds are invasive species themselves: house sparrows, starlings, pigeons, and trash-eating seagulls.

    In suburbs, parks, and rural areas there will be more native birds affected by cat predation, but I don’t believe anyone has ever compared the predation of domestic or feral cats on native bird populations with that of a “natural” sized bobcat population. Most pet cats never get to learn hunting skills from an experienced mother, either because they go to a new home soon after they begin solid food, or because the mother cat herself never learned to hunt. Some pet cats figure out how to hunt well, but others never quite get the hang of it. Some lose interest when the prey hides, since they are not motivated by hunger.

    As for outdoor cats, it has been my observation that they understand how traffic works and cross the street much more safely than squirrels. Most of the cats I have known which were killed by cars were young and had very bold personalities. Cautious young cats and the luckier bold ones gain the experience to know how to stay safe from traffic and usually live long lives without any traffic accidents.

    I’ve had outdoor cats all my life in urban settings, and they’ve only occasionally had infectious diseases, all of which were mild ones. I expect that, aside from vaccination, of course, neutering outdoor cats is key to preventing disease transmission, since neutered cats no longer have a biological drive to meet other cats. Tomcats are particularly vulnerable to blood-borne pathogens as they roam far from home and fight with other toms.

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