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How to design and fence your garden for your cats’ enjoyment and safety.

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Even though our cats have been living in our homes for generations, most cats still have strong hunting instincts and the need for exercise, play and interaction with nature. That is why cats enjoy having access to a garden, but because of all the dangers lurking outside, you have to make sure your ‘cat garden’ is cat-safe and escape proof. We have gathered some guidelines and tips for planting, fencing and creating garden features for felines.

In the wild cats hunt up to thirty mice a day – their make-up is as such that they can easily do this. They have lots of energy (especially certain breeds) and are excellent climbers and jumpers. No wonder some cats get bored or frustrated rather quickly and then resort to unacceptable behaviour such as scratching of furniture and spraying in the home. In a home situation, we have to create ways to stimulate our cats and satisfy their instinctive needs.

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Movement and action

A garden can provide many opportunities for excitement. Start by installing a bird feeder – placed high up in a place where your cat can see the birds, but not reach them. She’ll spend hours watching the birds flying to and from the feeder, even practicing her stalking and pouncing abilities without  causing any real harm. Alternatively you could have a fish pond in your garden, covered with fine mesh. Reflectors on a string, hung where they’ll catch the rays of the sun, scattering little dots of sunlight all over the garden, will also entertain cats for quite a while.

 

 

Does style count? 

One might think cats won’t mind the design style of the garden – not true. Cats will, for example, not really appreciate a minimalist ‘Zen’ garden with very few plants and objects. They are hunters and will therefore prefer a garden with lots of hiding places like low shrubbery, bushes and thick groundcover. Pot plants, garden sculptors and other objects placed in such a way that they can play hide and seek or weaving chase games will be most welcome. In fact, your cat won’t say no to a cosy hideaway such as a little ‘dog house’ fitted with comfy blankets or an empty pot turned on its side (a square pot will be more practical).

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Preferred plants

Australian cordyline (Cordyline australis) – fast growing and ideal for sharpening claws

Catmint (Nepeta mussinii) – for eating and bedding, cats love the taste of the leaves

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) – for rolling and rubbing, has an intoxicating effect on cats (leaves can also be dried for later use or to stuff cat toys)

Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) – grow well in pots or the ground and is good for climbing

Lavender (Lavandula species) –  an attractive and aromatic hiding place

Ornamental grasses – Hakonechloa for nibbling to aid digestion and Acorus ‘Ogon’ makes a nice springy cushion for sleeping
Stay away from poisonous plants such as Oleander, Foxgloves and Amaryllis.

Garden features 

Natural rocks placed in sunny spots or among shrubbery will not only make attractive focal points in your garden, but are just the kind of places your cat will seek out. Use boulders with level tops so your cat can easily make herself comfortable.

Also provide a few logs or dried branches for climbing and scratching. Place them in such a way that you can move them every now and again – a change of scenery.

Very important to remember, is that cats love high perches from where they can keep an eye on their territory while enjoying the sun. A tall scratch post with different vertical levels is ideal for this purpose.

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Fun and games

No matter how good your feline garden, you still have an important role to play. For starters you’ll have to keep on changing the setting by moving objects around and providing new elements. No, you do have to re-design the entire garden, small changes will do. Surprise your cat by sticking a ‘toy on a stick’ in flower bed or moving her favourite bed into the sun.

Another favourite game, ideal for the garden, is a food-hunt. Like hiding Easter eggs for children, you hide bowls with little bits of kibble or treats under plants or behind pots. Once your cat gets to know the game, she’ll enjoy the challenge.

An outside latrine 

If you want your cat to use the garden instead of an indoor litter tray, you can encourage her by creating a private area where she can easily dig in the soil. Create a sandy area behind some shrubs or if you do not mind her using your flower beds, make sure to leave some space between the plants. On the other hand, a cat can be discouraged from using flower beds as a toilet by planting thick groundcover, covering all the soil.

 

Electric fence 

An electric fence (mounted on the perimeter wall) will help keep your cats in, if:

•           It has at least seven strands

•           The bottom strand is live

•           The strands start below the top of the wall (mounted on the inside of the wall)

•           The first four strands should be half the distance apart compared to a normal electric fence

•           Trees and branches should be kept away from the fence

•           The garden wall should be high enough, making it difficult for the cats to get near the live wires

 

Keeping in an escape artist 

No matter how stimulating and interesting your garden, some cats will want to know what happens on the other side of the fence. True, certain breeds such as Abyssinians and Norwegian Forest Cats are more prone to wandering, but it’s advisable that all feline gardens have a proper, escape proof perimeter fence.

The best option is a high, smooth (plastered) wall with a correctly fitted electric or slanted mesh fence at the top. Have the electric strands or wire mesh attached to L-brackets, fitted on the inside top of the wall and standing at an angle facing the inside. Also clear away trees, shrubs or structures next to the wall that may give your cat access to the top of the wall. Pretend you are a cat when inspecting your garden wall and look for possible escape routes – drainage pipes, culverts, walls leading to a roof and gaps under gates may all pose a problem. A double set of gates, especially at the entrance leading to the street will help prevent your cats from darting through an open gate.
Text and photography: Johann Theron

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