Pet-safe outdoor plants: Creating a pet-friendly garden
It’s not only human members of the family that enjoy our gardens. For four-legged family members, the garden is their outdoor territory and their window on the world. For everyone’s ease of mind, the garden needs to meet the needs of our pets and be their safe haven. The good news is, it's not at all difficult to make it that way!
Pets enjoy simple pleasures - they love sunny and sheltered places in the garden where they can enjoy a mid-morning nap, as well as plentiful vantage points to view the world around them. Most cats need a scratching post, while dogs need somewhere to exercise, alongside a secure fence to keep them in the garden instead of roaming the street or pestering the neighbours. Cats that roam may need to be confined to a cat run or kept indoors, especially at night. Most importantly, all pets that spend time outdoors need constant access to fresh water, shade and shelter from rain.
Safe planting options
Many gardeners with pets are concerned about whether plants are safe for their furry friends. While some plants may be harmful, it must be noted that most garden plants are safe, and indeed rarely of any interest to your pets. Often it is only younger animals – especially puppies and some kittens – or dogs that are bored or lonely that may try to chew or eat the plants as they explore the world around them.
Plants on the Flower Power 'pet-safe outdoor plants' list include plants for all parts of the garden starting with groundcover (baby’s tears, spider plant), flowering (African daisies, snapdragons, orchids, fuchsia, petunia), shrubs (bottlebrush, camellia) and trees (crepe myrtle, magnolia). Most herbs and edible plants are also pet-friendly. If you're looking for indoor plant suggestions, click here.
Cats and dogs also enjoy grasses of all types, and most cats have an affinity for catmint and cat grass. Consider planting these treats to keep them happy!
Some dogs may chew on branches, sticks and even woody mulches, which can lead to choking or other injuries. If you notice your pup has a tendency to explore with their mouth, ensure you keep your yard clear, collect and secure any fallen debris, and if you need to use a mulch, choose one that is less likely to cause issues.
Safety with garden chemicals and products
Of more concern than plants are garden chemicals - but with care and adequate forethought, you can use these safely around pets, too. Some snail and rodent baits are highly dangerous for our pets - particularly dogs, which are often attracted to the baits. Baits that contain metaldehyde can kill dogs - so always buy pet-safe products, and keep all chemicals, even pet-safe ones, stored out of reach of pets (as well as children).
When applying garden chemicals, even safe ones, keep pets indoors until the chemical has dried or has been absorbed by the plant. Always follow the application instructions on the container (for example, even pet-safe snail baits should be lightly sprinkled and not placed in large handfuls) and dispose of containers safely, where pets can’t find them.
Some fertilisers – especially blood and bone products and some manures – are also very attractive to pets, particularly dogs. Many dogs will seek out and eat blood and bone fertiliser. Either avoid using these products if your dog has shown an interest in them, or ensure that the product is mixed in to the soil thoroughly, so it is less appealing. Not only could eating fertiliser make the dog sick, the dog may damage garden plants in its efforts to locate the source of the fascinating smell that you’ve scattered in the garden!
Another garden danger for pets, particularly dogs, is plastic containers, such as seed punnets and plastic pots. Many dogs like to play with and chew plastic items, but these can be brittle and easily ingested. Store empty pots and other containers carefully and securely and don’t let dogs get hold of them when you're planting.
While we work at making the garden safe for our pets, we also need to keep it as safe as possible for visiting birds and native animals. Birds are particularly vulnerable to cat predation. If your cat is likely to attack visiting birds, keep it confined indoors, on a balcony, or in a secure cat run. Keep bird feeders and birdbaths out of reach of cats, and provide escape routes for birds such as prickly shrubs, which your cat won't want to go near.
Many cats and dogs are also likely to hunt or chase reptiles, such as lizards and small frogs. Some cats also fish in ponds, so if you have fish, keep the pond netted to avoid unscheduled fishing expeditions.
Potentially dangerous plants
There is a surprisingly long list of plants that can be harmful to pets. Some are highly toxic, while others are less toxic but still potentially harmful. It's worth noting, however, that most plants, even dangerous ones, are usually of no interest to pets - and the benefits of a pet having access to a garden space and outdoor exercise far outweigh concerns about dangers from plants.
Those plants to watch out for include plants with berries, which can be attractive to animals but may be toxic if consumed, and plants with toxic sap that animals may chew and which could cause irritation or even poisoning. Some bulbs and seeds are also toxic to pets, although the above-ground part of the plant may not be dangerous, so always store bulbs and seeds safely before planting.
Some plants may lead to skin allergies upon contact. For example, tradescantia is one to be wary of with dogs as it is a skin irritant. Very thorny or spiny plants may also be dangerous at eye level. Plants with sticky or prickly seeds - such as forget-me-nots, bindii and some grassy weeds - can also be harmful to pets, as the seeds may stick in their coats or paws. Grass seeds may also embed in dogs' skin or ears.
Here are some plants that are best avoided in a pet-friendly garden as parts of them, including the bulb, stem, flower or fruit, may be harmful to cats or dogs: aloe, avocado, azaleas, bird of paradise, brunfelsia (yesterday, today and tomorrow), cycad, cyclamen, dieffenbachia, dracaena, gum trees (eucalypts and others), hellebores, hydrangea, some indoor plants, ivy, lilies (liliums), oleander, onion, poinsettia, sweet peas, tulips, daffodils and most bulbs, and many common weeds such as castor bean, tradescantia, lantana and bindii. For more information and an extensive list, the RSPCA provide a fantastic resource.