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Kitten in the garden

Preparing Your Garden for Spring and Your Pets

FOUR PAWS' guides on how to make your garden safe for animals

26.2.2021

Having a garden can be great fun, but if you also have a pet, you need to make sure your garden is a safe space for them also enjoy. There is a lot to consider, from which plants to use and which to avoid, how to make your yard escape-proof and also how to protect the local wildlife visitors safe from your pets – FOUR PAWS has got you covered!

Dive into our guides on pets and gardens, offering you top tips and advice so that you and your pets can enjoy the warm season without worries.

Dogs and Gardens

Dog owners with large gardens can use high fences or walls to establish a “dog garden” and separate it from the kitchen garden and flower garden. Hedges are not suitable for this purpose. On the one hand, animals may be able to get through; on the other hand, many hedges are poisonous or have thorns capable of harming your pet. Fences should always be built on a solid foundation to prevent a dog digging its way through underneath. If this is too much trouble, try burying your dog’s faeces along the fence – this will prevent your pet from digging.

Ideally, a dog garden should consist of a large area including a hard-wearing lawn, a few trees and carefully chosen bushes. It should provide your dog with the opportunity to frolic, run and dig around trees and bushes and hide bones and chew sticks. In the summer, dogs enjoy digging holes where they can lie to cool down.

Six more things to think about

  • Dogs always want to be with their pack – so it’s important to situate the dog garden in the part of the main garden most commonly frequented by the human pack members.
  • Dogs whose need for social contact is paramount must never be locked up away from the human pack. They only ever feel truly at ease when they’re with the other pack members. A lonely dog will attempt to call the rest of its pack by howling loudly. Not surprisingly, this will disturb the neighbours.
  • In summertime, dogs need a shady place, e.g. under an awning or a homemade wooden shelter, where they can stay in visual contact with humans. As a roof, a frame made of thick laths planed to minimise the danger of splinters is fine. This should be high enough to give the dog plenty of space to dig a hole where it can cool down. The width and length will depend on the size of the dog itself, though the shelter should not be smaller than 0.8 x 0.8 metres. Planks should be screwed carefully on to the frame to provide cover. Caution: do not glaze the wood as the wood glaze may damage your dog’s health!
  • The trees and bushes in the dog garden should be non-toxic and free of thorns.
  • If the dog garden has been safely designed, your dog will be able to spend several hours a day alone there, provided it has been carefully accustomed to this. It must, however, have the opportunity of going indoors in the event of rain, strong winds or cold.
  • A well-insulated kennel will also be sufficient, provided it is mounted on short legs to protect your dog against damp and cold from the ground. The roof should also be detachable for easy cleaning. However, dogs should only be left alone in exceptional cases.
  • No dog garden, no matter how large, can replace excursions and expeditions with the pack! Dogs enjoy exploring and discovering new scents.
  • As a pack animal, your dog also needs to spend a decent amount of time with other dogs – to cement its ability to interact and communicate with others of its kind. If isolated from them too much, it will lose this ability. This can lead to problems with other dogs since aggression is more likely to spring from insecurity than from dominance.

Combining your dog garden with the main garden

Many dog owners don’t have enough room for a separate dog garden, so plants and dogs have to coexist in the main garden. The following points will be helpful.

  • A dog can be trained to not go into flower beds – but if so, it should also have its own spot for digging (this should be sheltered from the sun).
  • To avoid your dog urinating on your vegetables to mark out its turf, herbs and vegetables should be planted in a raised bed.
  • A garden pond is always a hazard for a dog. It might – for reasons obscure to us as humans – panic and drown.
  • Avoid poisonous plants.

Cats and Gardens

Cats like to explore their surroundings, and fences and walls cannot prevent this. For them, roaming freely through the garden is the most species-appropriate behaviour imaginable. Essentially, what they need is to monitor their turf regularly, to mount expeditions and above all to act out their natural urges and instincts.

If you want to prevent your cat from going beyond the boundaries of your own garden (e.g. because of a particularly dangerous road), a special cat fence can help. This might be made of a material your cat will not be able to scale (e.g. plastic or Plexiglas) or it might have an extension at the top that skews back inwards (also made of plastic or similar), making it harder for a cat to climb over. In any event, a cat fence definitely has to be very high. Trees, or other plants cats can climb up, should never be planted around the borders of your garden. If you already have a tree there, the solution is to fix a fairly wide plastic shield around the trunk to stop the cat climbing up it. Moreover, unlike dogs, cats cannot be trained not to do their business in your vegetable bed or flower bed; to them, the loose earth pretty much constitutes an invitation. Here, it helps to mulch the soil with natural materials with long fibres, such as dry bark mulch or chopped twigs.

Vegetable beds can be protected by bordering them with plants which have a scent disagreeable to cats – Balkan cranesbill, for example, or common rue or wormwood. Not all animals will react to the same plants, so it is best to find out first by trial and error what will deter your cat.

Further tips for cat-proofing your garden

  •  Sandpits should always be kept covered when your children are not using them.
  •  To stop your cat getting into the habit of visiting a neighbouring garden to do its business, a sandy area or small pile of sand should be provided on your own property and the dried faeces removed every now and then with a rake.
  •  Cats sharpen their claws, which may cause fruit trees or other young or delicate trees to shrink if their bark is badly damaged. This can be prevented by wrapping the relevant tree trunk in a scratching mat as tall as the cat itself. You can also protect your trees from harm by placing a few home-made scratching trees in the garden.
  • Please consider having your cat neutered as well. Domestic cats that have not been neutered are the main cause of the excessive proliferation of strays. Sadly, cats are still being shot, poisoned, beaten to death, drowned or killed by other methods in order to curb the number of strays. Only by neutering your own cat and supporting projects for neutering stray animals can you help prevent this suffering!

Rain barrels

Rain barrels must be covered with a secure, properly fitting lid. This is essential to prevent cats drowning in them.

Birds and Fish in the Garden

Birds

Any gardener who is also an animal lover and a cat owner is faced with a dilemma: cats are dangerous to birds. Admittedly, cats’ natural behaviour makes them better suited to mousing, so they will very seldom catch a healthy bird. Nevertheless, it is perfectly conceivable that your domestic cat may one day lay a songbird at your feet. Young birds that have not yet left the nest are particularly at risk. Here are a few tips from FOUR PAWS on how to protect birds from cats:

  • If you have birdbaths in your garden, put them in a freestanding location with a good overview. This will allow birds to spot approaching cats in good time and fly away.
  • Do not remove the foliage from thick bushes: the rustling will serve as an early warning for the birds.
  • Smooth metal sleeves wrapped around trees will prevent cats from climbing up them. They will then be unable to reach nesting boxes or nests.
  • Remove low branches that cats will be able to access by jumping from a wall, the garden table or the garden shed.
  • Using a wire loop, nesting boxes should be suspended to hang freely from branches. Should your cat be bold enough to jump on to them anyway, a wide projecting roof will prevent “fishing trips” from above. Alternatively, you can attach such boxes near the very top of the house.
  • Nests in bushes or on the ground can be protected with wire mesh. The meshes must be large enough to allow birds to slip through. You should therefore ensure that there is enough distance between the wire and the nest to prevent your cat engaging in “fishing”. The various commercially available obstacles designed to stop cats climbing tree trunks are not suitable because of their reliance on sharp spikes or similar – the danger of injury is simply too great. An alternative solution is to fix a fairly wide plastic screen around the trunk.

You should carefully monitor the progress of the young birds in the nest. Once they start attempting to fly, your cat should be confined indoors for a day or two or only allowed in the garden under strict supervision. If the cat is approaching the nest or the young birds, spray it with the garden hose (keep the jet weak, to avoid injuring the cat). This will keep it away from the birds, at least for a while.

Fish in the garden pond

To a cat, any fish sunning themselves in the shallow areas at the edge of a garden pond are nothing less than an invitation to go fishing. A helpful defense against this is a barrier of stones piled up high enough to prevent the cat’s paws reaching to the water’s edge.

Choosing the Right Plants for a Pet-Friendly Garden

Poisonous plants

Many plants commonly found in today’s gardens are poisonous to animals. These include clematis, ivy, laburnum and wisteria, honeysuckle, rhododendron, azalea, cherry laurel, daphne, dogwood, box tree, privet, yew, thuja (arbor vitae), juniper, candelilla, lilies, larkspur, aconite and spring bloomers like crocus, spring snowflake, narcissus, primrose, tulip, poinsettia and lily-of-the-valley. The full list of poisonous plants can be obtained from your vet or from various poison service points and hotlines. Some plants are poisonous to dogs specifically; others are dangerous for cats. Likewise, the toxicity level of these plants or of the poisonous parts of them also varies.

If the garden is also used by a pet, you should dispense altogether with poisonous plants. You cannot rely here on your pet’s natural instinct to recognise of its own accord which plants are unfit for consumption. The choice of plants in a garden is too narrow, so there will always be the risk that your pet may nibble on something poisonous simply because no alternative presents itself.

Dogs can be trained not to bite plants, and provided enough cat grass is available, cats will seldom chew anything else. However, this does not eliminate the danger. Special care needs to be taken when dealing with young pets, who will happily nibble at anything that happens to be within biting distance. In the case of some plants – including some classified as only mildly poisonous – mere touching will be enough to cause irritations or allergic reactions on sensitive areas of the animal’s skin. You should therefore make it a basic principle never to leave young dogs and cats unattended in the garden.

FOUR PAWS advises you to draw up an inventory of the poisonous plants in your garden and to show this to your vet in the event of any unexplained symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhoea or skin irritation.

Plants and bushes with thorns

Thorns can be dangerous for pets too: if a dog is chasing a ball, playing with another dog or chasing the neighbour’s cat, it may wind up in the bushes in the heat of the moment and injure itself, especially its eyes. This can also happen to a cat – when it’s busy chasing a local rival out of your garden, for example. Some plant thorns include substances capable of causing swelling or skin irritation. Ideally, you should eliminate all thorny plants.

Pollen-bearing plants

Many nature-loving pet-owning amateur gardeners have plants in their garden with nectar that is fed on by (wild) bees and other insects. Such insects can pose a danger to pets. If dogs or cats try to snap them up, they may get stung in the mouth or throat. As the sting swells up, this may lead to choking and even suffocation. You should therefore avoid growing this type of plant at the front of a flower bed.

Plants with scents that repel pets

Some plants have scents that are disagreeable to sensitive canine or feline noses. This aversion can, however, vary from one animal to the next. For example, many dogs dislike southernwood while some cats will refuse to go near common rue, wormwood or Balkan cranesbill. These individual aversions on the part of your pet can be used to protect it from poisonous plants or to keep it away from flower beds and vegetable beds.

Cats love catnip

Cats adore valerian and catnip. In fact, they find the latter so beguiling that lying down and rolling around in it is their idea of heaven. Amateur gardeners are fond of catnip too because it is undemanding and quick to bloom. Bear in mind, however, that cats love this plant as much as you do and cannot be kept away from it. Indulge your cat – but make sure you don’t plant your catnip near any poisonous or thorny plants.

Pet-friendly Gardening

The layout of your garden determines how much manuring and pest control it requires and what gardening tools you will need. If pets will also be spending time in your garden, the following tips are well worth heeding.

Manuring

The most animal-friendly manuring method, albeit also the most laborious, is to use naturally occurring substances like horse dung. This is particularly well-suited to kitchen gardens, though many flowers also react well to it. When using standard commercial fertilisers, it is essential to follow the instructions. If they contain substances that are dangerous to humans, you should assume that these are harmful to animals too. If you have dissolved a fertiliser in water, it is vital to dispose of the water that remains. And because pets like to drink from watering cans, these should be carefully cleaned or placed somewhere out of their reach.

Pest control

Please do not spray your garden with toxic substances to combat pests like greenfly or plant diseases like mildew. Not only do these harm pets, they also harm other animals living in the garden. There are all kinds of natural ways of keeping plants pest-free. A thorough prune will often help. You can read up on such remedies in any number of specialist books or ask about them in your local organic garden centre. Rats are a special case. Some cats and dogs are capable of killing rats but they should not be allowed to eat them as rats carry diseases. In cities like Hamburg, rats have to be reported to the proper authority, which will then put down rat poison and mark the area accordingly. In the past, however, people have often failed to spot warnings that rat poison is present. If you have seen rats, you should check whether any poison has been put down. If it has, make sure your pets do not run around freely in the area.

Gardening tools

All electrical or petrol-powered gardening tools are dangerous for pets. They can accidentally slip out of your hand and injure an animal if it is nearby. Cats and dogs should therefore be kept in the house when you are mowing the lawn, tidying up borders with a grass trimmer, cutting hedges, tilling and sawing. Please do not leave mechanical knives, hoes, saws and other sharp gardening tools of any size lying around in the garden. Your dog is extremely likely to treat them as toys to be picked up using its mouth. To avoid injuries, you should put all your tools away in a safe place the moment you’re done using them.

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