Introduction

Joe InglisAccording to the old saying, dogs are our best friends, but with modern lifestyles making it ever harder for people to commit to dog ownership, cats are becoming more popular than ever, with 18% of UK households now including a cat. With so many cats now sharing our lives and environment, tensions and problems are increasingly common, particularly in urban areas where as many as 1000 cats can live in a single square kilometre. Reports of cats decimating wildlife populations, wild territorial fights keeping vets like me busy patching up bite wounds and torn ears, and a rise in behavioural problems such as inappropriate urination are all issues of concern for cat owners, wildlife lovers and gardeners alike.

Cats are highly territorial animals driven by their natural hunting instincts, and with more and more cats competing for space in our densely populated urban spaces, it is not surprising that tensions and problems arise. For gardeners, understanding these deep rooted instincts that are at the heart of feline behaviour is key to approaching issues such as plant damage, soiling of gardens and also how to make gardens more cat friendly. In the wild, cats roam vast areas, and use a complex set of marking signs such as scents and visual scratch marks to mark out their patch and avoid contact and conflict with other cats. When cats are crammed together in dense urban environments, their natural social systems can breakdown leading to problems, not just for the cats but also for people and their gardens. However, by thinking about these problems from a cat’s point of view, there are lots of successful strategies that can be employed to help and keep cats, owners and gardens happy.

For gardeners frustrated by unwanted feline visitors soiling the santolina, lying on the lavender or climbing the conifers, there are several ways to keep cats out of a garden.

1.    Fencing – cats are amazing climbers so fencing on its own is rarely enough to keep a determined cat out of a garden, but there are ways in which you can use fencing and other barriers to effectively keep cats out of your garden. For example, stringing a taut line of fishing line or wire parallel to the top of the fence, about 10cm above it, makes it very hard for cats to stand on top of the fence on their way over.

2.    Netting - there are several proprietary systems available based on netting that rely on cats finding climbing loose and unstable netting very tricky. These systems use simple mesh netting, usually angled inwards from the top of a fence on aluminium struts. 

3.    Protect vulnerable areas – new planting is always the most vulnerable to cats as they tend to enjoy sunning themselves on bare soil as it warms up in the sun, so protect these areas with loose netting strung over them.

4.    Chicken wire – laying down chicken wire on new flower beds before you plant can be really effective as it stops digging and burying toilet waste, and cats don’t like walking on it so it acts as a deterrent.

5.    Water – cats generally hate water, so sprinklers (and water pistols!) can be an effective way of keeping cats away.

6.    Smell – cats are very sensitive to smell and they find some odours very unpleasant so things like blood meal fertilisers can be an effective cat repellent.

7.    Commercial cat repellents – these include citrus smells, which are acidic and very acrid to a cat’s sensitive sense of smell, and ultrasonic noises. They vary widely in their effectiveness so it’s often a matter or trial and error.

8.    Plant deterrents - there are some plants that deter cats, including Coleus canina which has a pungent odour that is said to repel cats and other mammals including foxes and rabbits from the garden. It is a pretty plant that works well in borders and you could consider using this around your vegetable patch to keep unwanted visitors away.

Keeping cats out of your garden is fine if you’re not a cat owner yourself, but how do you go about protecting your garden from your own cats? Here are a few tips to help keep your garden safe from your cat...

1.    To avoid your cats using the whole garden as a toilet, try setting aside an area of earth where they can bury their waste. Somewhere out of the way is best, and it’s worth digging it over and removing the waste regularly to keep it fresh and reduce odours.

2.    Spiky and dense plants are a good way of keeping cats away from more fragile plants and flowers so clever planting can be help reduce the damage your cat can cause.

3.    Protect areas of new planting with netting or wire mesh

4.    Place clippings from thorny or spiky plants on sensitive areas to discourage cats from walking on them  

Protecting wildlife

Cats are natural born hunters and hunting and killing prey is part of what makes them feline. There is nothing cats enjoy more than the thrill of the chase and satisfaction of a successful hunt, and presenting the results of a night’s work on the door mat is their way of showing off their skills. Unfortunately this instinctive drive to hunt can be devastating for local wildlife, particularly small mammals and birds, as it has been estimated that up to 55 million birds are killed by cats in the UK each year (that’s around 6 per cat) along with countless voles, mice, frogs and shrews. Some cats are more prolific than others, with one recorded case demonstrating that a single cat killed more than 1000 small mammals in a year, and many free-roaming domestic cats devouring over 100 animals a year.

Although there is limited evidence for any lasting impact on wildlife populations (the RSPB say that there is no scientific evidence that predation by cats in gardens is having any impact on bird populations UK-wide due to the large numbers of birds that die each year from other causes compared to the numbers killed by cats), many cat owners are keen to encourage wildlife in the garden, so what can be done to help cats and wildlife to live together?

Well, the first thing to say is that nothing can change a cat’s nature and there are welfare concerns associated with many of the techniques used to try and prevent predation by cats. Not only do many of these techniques pose physical risks to the cats, such as collars with bells that can get caught on branches, or bibs that impede cat’s ability to climb away from danger, they can also have a psychological effect. Cats are biologically programmed to hunt and making this hard or impossible can cause stress, anxiety and subsequent behavioural and physical health problems.

The main techniques used to reduce predation include devices that make it harder for cats to hunt by alerting their prey with noises, such as bells on collars, and those that physically impede cats such as plastic bibs. These devices can be effective, with studies showing that cats wearing collars with bells caught 41% less birds and 34% less small mammals than cats without. The Feline Advisory Bureau does endorse the use of collars and bells provided they have a quick release mechanism to prevent accidently entanglements, but anything that prevents an animal from doing an instinctive behaviour has the potential to cause stress so this needs to be carefully considered before using one of these devices.

Other methods that can help reduce the impact a cat can have on the wildlife in the garden include barriers to keep cats away from wildlife areas such as bird feeding tables (downward facing cones or loose netting can work well), and the most effective of all – keeping the cat indoors. Having a house cat is an option that many people choose but from a veterinary perspective keeping an active, adventurous animal like a cat confined indoors is not ideal and not something that I would personally agree with.

My view is that if we choose to share our lives with cats, we have to accept their nature and that they will hunt. We can try to reduce the impact by giving wildlife safe havens but to attempt to completely prevent a cat from hunting is going against their nature.

A cat-friendly garden

Cats love the great outdoors and if you’re happy to share your garden with your cats, there are lots of things you can do to make your garden more cat friendly.

1.    Provide a hideaway – cats love privacy, especially if there are other cats in the neighbourhood, so offering your cat private spaces in the garden such as patches of dense undergrowth (for example evergreen shrubs), or a space underneath a bench can provide welcome refuges as well as a chance to escape the sun on hot days

2.    Climbing frames – cats love to climb and scratch so think about how you can provide them exciting structures to explore. Pergolas, trellises or simple upright planks of wood can all make great climbing frames for cats and give them somewhere other than your sofa to sharpen their claws!

3.    Catnip – the active chemical nepetalactone found in nepeta cataria or catnip can trigger a euphoric response in cats so it’s a great plant to include in your garden and provide a legal high for your cat!

4.    Grass – some cats enjoy eating grass, and there are lots of theories as to why they do this including aiding their digestion. Whatever the reason, it is unlikely to do any harm so think about leaving an area of long grass for them to explore and nibble on.

 

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