Before becoming a veterinarian, I was a plant pathologist, emphasis on the pathology.
I have always enjoyed studying plants and gardening, but whether the plants enjoyed my less-than-green thumb is debatable. One thing I can still do to help my green indoor companions is protect them from nibbling felines.
Houseplants are like quiet, (usually) nondemanding indoor pets that provide us with calming greenery to lower stress, boost moods and creativity, and even reduce air pollutants.
The NASA Clean Air Study was a research project performed in order to find ways to clean air in space stations. Replications of this study have been somewhat inconsistent; however, the gist was that plants absorb carbon dioxide, release oxygen, and some plants (and possibly their soil microbes) may even remove volatile organic compounds (VOCs), or pollutants.
The study includes a list of plants that may aid in removing VOCs in indoor spaces. Unfortunately many of these plants won’t be invited into my home due to toxicity in cats, as I have a notorious feline plant-muncher named Eleanor Smudge.
The primary health risks to cats exposed to plants are toxicity, GI obstruction, general GI upset from eating something new, and occasionally contact with parasites in the soil. Risks to your houseplants include injuries from being chewed, illness from being used as a litter pan, and trauma from being knocked over.
Thankfully, there five easy steps you can follow to make sure your cats and plants happily coexist.
Tip #1: Choose cat-safe plants
Many greenhouses have a pet-friendly section of plants to choose from, but it never hurts to double-check before bringing a new plant into your home. Often there are groups of common plants that are mostly safe, like ferns and orchids, but there are many lookalikes out there that are not so safe.
The ASPCA has an alphabetical list of poisonous and non-poisonous plants, and some of the cat-friendly plants in the NASA study include:
- Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
- Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Bostoniensis’)
- Bamboo or Parlor palm (Chamaedorea elegans)
- Moth orchid (Phalaenopsis spp.)
- Dwarf banana (Musa acuminata)
- Areca palm (Dypsis lutescens)
- Dwarf date palm (Phoenix roebelinii)
Sadly, those gorgeous philodendrons are toxic to our beloved feline friends (here’s looking at you, pink princess philodendron and Swiss cheese monstera).
While not as poisonous as true lilies—which cause kidney failure even in small doses—those verdant philodendrons contain insoluble calcium oxalate crystals. Calcium oxalates can cause irritation and pain to the GI tract—including the mouth, esophagus, and stomach—leading to your cat drooling profusely, rubbing its face, and vomiting.
Keep these tips in mind when choosing plants to bring into your home:
- Don’t forget to check if that beautiful bouquet is cat-friendly.
- Consider an indoor gardening option to grow pet-safe herbs and greens for your salad. Some of these come with light sources to give your plants optimal growing conditions, even on those dark winter days.
- Fake plants, while lacking benefit of air purifying, are harder to kill. Only persistent plastic chewers might get into trouble if they decide to ingest them.
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Tip #2: Keep the plants safe
Keeping cats from accessing your plants is the best thing you can do.
There are a variety of ways to make your plants less accessible, including hanging plants using macramé hangers, installing plant shelves, and taking advantage of out-of-reach locations like tops of cupboards. You could also make a terrarium or cover your plants with a decorative dome or birdcage. Seasonal outdoor vacations are another option for some plants.
For those large potted plants on the floor, add some sort of soil cover to discourage your cat from digging in it and using it as another litterbox. Some people place decorative rocks in the pot around the plant base; others have used a layer of foil or chicken wire.
You should also consider your cat’s alternatives. Are the litterboxes cleaned frequently (at least daily)? Are there options (many cats prefer to urinate in one box and defecate in another)? Are they in desirable locations for your cat? Is the current litterbox substrate preferable to alternatives?
Lastly, make sure your plants are safe and secure. If it’s a hanging pot, use a sturdy hanger and anchored screws so that they are not easily knocked down with an extra 8-10 pounds of Fluffy leaping up at them.
If it’s a potted plant on the floor, consider adding a sticky putty to the base, keeping it between other objects to prevent it from falling, or weighing your plant down (possibly with rocks to also cover the soil).
Consider using a deterrent. Most cats don’t like citrus, and there are deterrent sprays like bitter apple or homemade orange/lemon sprays that can be misted onto the leaves. Some people even have tried placing citrus peels inside the pot. Just be sure this won’t offend your plant by testing it on a small area first.
Tip #3: Consider giving your cat their own plants
Cat grass planters are often available at pet stores and typically contain a cereal grain like wheat, barley, or rye. These seeds can be found elsewhere, but make sure that they aren’t pre-treated if they are to be consumed by your furry feline.
Looking for these seeds in a natural food store may be a better option than a farm supply store. Keep in mind that if your cat is eating too much of anything new, there is potential for an upset stomach.
You might also train your cat to pursue certain plants over others if they are interested in cat grass. Positive reinforcement with treats, catnip, or clicker training can be used to encourage one plant over another, as well as placing cat grass in more accessible areas.
Tip #4: Know your houseplants
Learn the names of your houseplants so that you can provide that information in case your cat does accidently eat part of it. If you don’t know your plant’s name, take a picture of it (and maybe give it a name and an Instagram account while you’re at it). Many vets have had training in plant identification.
Tip #5: Have a plan
If Fluffy does end up ingesting your plant:
- Identify said plant victim, the time of the incident, and note any symptoms your cat may be showing. Move your plant to a safe place that’s out of reach and monitor your cat.
- If you don’t know if your plant is toxic or not, contact your veterinarian. You may also reach out to one of the pet poison hotlines, which may be able to offer you guidance on your next steps of action. Pet poison hotlines typically charge a fee and issue a case number that your veterinarian can follow up on. These services provide valuable information and access to a veterinary toxicologist, who can help make up the best treatment plan for your pet in its unique situation. Should your cat decide to dine on your indoor foliage, two hotlines that offer 24/7 availability are the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (888.426.4435) and the Pet Poison Hotline (855.764.7661).
- Keep possible plant exposures in mind if your cat comes down with something. Sometimes a delayed response can happen, and our furry felines are not always the best at telling us when something is wrong. Make sure to mention any and all plant exposures to your veterinarian, however small a chance that your cat may have had around it.
With preparation and some creativity, houseplants and cats can peacefully coexist.
Reach out to your veterinarian if you notice coughing, gagging, vomiting, pawing at the mouth, inappetance, or other health problems, or with any plant concerns you may have with your cat. Be sure to double-check those new plants or bouquets coming into your home and plan ahead for their space.