Keeping Your Cat Out of Your Houseplants

Author: Chris Boicelli

Published: June 15, 2020

Updated: August 11, 2021

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cat with lavender plants

Cats are curious by nature, so it's no wonder that anything moving inside your home becomes potential prey.

Putting plants around your place can sometimes feel like a sacrificial ceremony (for the plant).

If the leaves or fronds aren't teasing them, some cats enjoy digging or, even worse, defecating in your planter.

It's not personal. Despite the frustration of finding your favorite plants looking like swiss cheese, your cat isn't destroying your decor out of spite, which is why it's essential to first understand why your cat may be going after your plants.

Here are our tips for troubleshooting why your cat won't leave your indoor plants alone and how to redirect their attention elsewhere.

Why Is My Cat Eating My Plants?

Cats Like the Taste of Plants

Much of a cat's exploration begins through their mouths. It may not sound incredibly enticing to you and me, but even when we were newborns, we experienced many things for the first time in the same way. As babies, we put everything in our mouths, and cats do the same thing. If it tastes good, it's a safe bet your cat will go back for more.

Even with non-toxic plant varieties, you will want to monitor how much they are chewing off. Even safe plants can cause an upset stomach, nausea, or vomiting from gobbling down too much of a leaf or frond.

Hopefully, you've read our article Top 10 Indoor Plants Safe for Cats, which will help put your mind at ease that the greenery in your home is non-toxic. But, non-toxic plants are just as tempting to your feline. You will want to monitor how much they are chewing off — if enough is consumed or they ingest a large frond, even safe plants can cause an upset stomach or even a gastrointestinal obstruction.

You should contact your veterinarian immediately if you believe your cat is showing any unusual behavior. This could include a change in their regular eating habits or troubles defecating in the litter box.

Cats Like the Texture of Plants

cat with catnip plant

If you've ever taken your cat outside, you may have noticed that they instantly are attracted to long reeds of grass and begin gnawing on it. It could be the texture of the plant that they enjoy.

It's also a possibility your cat has an upset stomach and instinctually is trying to get some fiber to help things move along in their gastrointestinal tract.

Cats Love the Movement of Leaves

This is probably the number one reason cats love plants. Cats are natural-born hunters. Although they are carnivores, the movement of a leaf or palm can be nearly impossible to resist. One of our favorite houseplants that are incredibly enticing with the long soft leaves is the Spider Plant. For us, it was a good idea to dedicate one plant as collateral damage, and this was the one!

Cats Chew Up Plants Out of Boredom

For many cat lovers, it may not be obvious when your feline is fed up with being left alone and struggling with boredom. Cats have always been considered lower maintenance than their canine counterpart, but that's not necessarily accurate. Leaving a feline to themselves for long periods can lead to unwanted behavior. One of those behaviors can be destructive aggression, and your plant (along with other household items) will end up taking the brunt of their frustration.

Click here for DIY cat enrichment ideas and our top picks for enrichment toys!

How to Keep Your Cat From Eating Your Plants

If you're not ready to dedicate a plant to your cat or just tired of trying to resurrect the greenery that's been mauled, there are some ways that you can make your plants less appealing to your cat.

Top Tips to Keep Your Cat Away from Plants

1. Make Your Plant Unappealing. Cats have a strong distaste for anything citrus. Using either juice of a lemon, lime, or orange diluted with some water can be sprayed on the leaves of your plant to ward off any feline invasion.

If you don't feel like creating your own mixture, Bodhi Dog makes a Bitter Lemon Spray. I have found it works really well (and you don't have to worry about using and cleaning out a general use plastic spray bottle). Usually, if your cat decides the smell is not enough to stop them, the taste will do the trick. That bitter taste keeps them from a return trip.

protect plants from cats2. Make Your Plant Inaccessible. There are several places that you can strategically put your household plants to avoid any abuse. Whether you hang them or put them on a shelf high enough that even the best leaper can't reach, it's important to understand your cat and their abilities.

Think outside the box and use an old fish tank for a planter, a terrarium, or a large dome birdcage. They're a little pricey, but it's a great way to keep your plants safe and add some style to the room.

Safety Note: Lilies are toxic to cats, so even having a lily on a shelf away from your cat, does not mean they're safe. Even minor exposures such as floating pollen getting on their fur and them grooming it off can be fatal.

3. Give Your Cat Their Own Plant. Another approach of drawing your cat's attention away from your plants is to provide them with their own cat grass or inside cat garden! Most times, these types of grass are a seed comprised of either wheat, barley, or rye.

Despite this being a safe alternative, you will still want to monitor how much they consume. We encourage you to talk with your veterinarian about any dietary concerns you may have about cat grass and whether they recommend it as a safe alternative for your cat. 

4. Train Your Cats to Leave Your Plant Alone. Yes, cats can be trained, just like dogs. It does take time, patience, and consistency, but you can train your cats to do nearly anything you want! Some people train their cats to do tricks while others may leash train their cat, so they can spend more time outside. Teaching your cat to leave your plants alone and redirecting them to an alternative behavior is possible with the right incentive.

Dr. Marci Koski of Feline Behavior Solutions suggests finding your cat's motivation when teaching them something new. "Treats are really easy ... because if you give a treat that is small and easily consumable, it doesn't take very much time, you can stay on the whole training process and repeat things over and over. For some cats, it's affection and praise."

One option I have found my cats love is Pet Greens Cat Craves. And these treats have meat as the first ingredient, have recognizable ingredients and contain Omega 3 Fatty acids.

Pet Greens Semi-Moist Cat Crave Treats
Pet Greens Semi-Moist Cat Crave Treats

Pro tip: If your cat's nefarious nature ends with your plants on the floor –you may want to consider sticky putty for the bottom of your planter. I know that I have it placed under most of our pottery (because kids too)! The best part of sticky putty is that it can be reused, it's non-toxic and doesn't dry out.

Alcolin Sticky Putty
Alcolin Sticky Putty

Why is My Cat Digging in My Planter?

If you have a digger and they're making a mess around your plant, you're not alone! Remember, digging is a natural instinct for a cat.

If you've ever noticed your cat burying their potty deposits, they're doing it for a reason — to hide the scent from predators and their prey. Sure, your inside cat doesn't have to worry about either of those things, but you aren't about to change thousands of years of instinct!

If they are just digging (and not using it as their litter box, which you can read more about below), there are some ways to change this unwanted behavior.

Make the Soil Unappealing to Your Cat

As mentioned above, cats are not huge fans of citrus. So, if you are spritzing leaves or fronds with a citrus solution (lemon, lime, or orange diluted with water), you can easily do the same thing for the soil.

Place a piece of landscape fabric or burlap spritzed with citrus to keep them from digging. Not only do you keep your cat away from your favorite greenery, but your house smells great too! Another option is taking slices of the rind and placing those around the pot.

cover plants with packing peanuts

cover plants with decorative stones

Cover Your Soil From Your Cat

cover plant soil with tin foil

You can also cover the soil with aluminum foil if you choose not to go the citrus route. Cats don't like the sound and feel of aluminum foil on their paws, so this can be a good deterrent. Foil can also be used during the holidays if you are having trouble keeping your cat out of your Christmas tree.

However, I don't find aluminum foil very attractive, so I like to use small decorative rocks. If you find they are batting the small pebbles around, switch to a slightly larger pebble with more weight. And consider esthetically how much nicer your plant will look with some stones at the base.

Why is My Cat Using a Planter as a Litter Box?

You don't have to look too far into why your cat is using a planter as a litter box. There are generally two reasons — and one probably has to do with the litter box that you bought for your cat.

It's Natural for Cats to Dig & Do Their Doody

As explained previously, cats naturally like to dig, especially in cold soft dirt. That's why you may find random surprises in your outside planters from your cats (if they are outdoor cats) or feral cats in the area.

They need somewhere to go and what better place than your lovely flower garden! You can use the same techniques described above to make your planters undesirable. However, if your cat is using your inside planters as a litter box, it may be due to common litter box setup and maintenance mistakes.

Set Your Cat Up for Litter Box Success

We have an excellent article series called Litter Box 101 that goes into greater detail on how to set your cat up for litter box success. There a couple things to keep in mind when you are trying to understand why your cat is pooping in unwanted areas.

Again, it's important to FIRST ensure that your feline doesn't have any underlying medical condition resulting in unwanted messes around the house. You should always check with your veterinarian about any changes in your cat's litter box habits. After ruling out any medical issues, chances are your cat is probably not happy with their litter box situation.

  • Cats Like a Clean Litter Box. This should go without saying, but how many times have we all forgotten to clean out the litter box? Or we asked our kids to do the daily scoop and they forget? It happens, but if you aren't cleaning your cat's litter box regularly, they may be choosing to take their business elsewhere. You should clean the litter boxes every day. And you may have noticed that I wrote boxes, as in plural inside your home.

  • You Need One More Box Than Your Number of Cats. You should have one more litter box than the number of cats you have in your home. So, one cat equals two litter boxes. Two cats equal three boxes, and so on.

    If you have multiple levels, you should put a litter box on each level, as well. I don't know any humans that like having only one bathroom in their home, so imagine sharing a small box with someone else! No, thank you.
Petmate Litter Pan
Petmate Litter Pan

Buy similar on Chewy

Nature's Miracle Advanced High Sided Corner Litter Box
Advanced High Sided Corner Litter Box

These two litter boxes are the exact style and manufacturer that we use at home. The Petmate litter pan is nearly 30" long and 20" deep, giving the cats plenty of room to move around. And it has two convenient side pockets to hold your scoop and disposable bags! One of the best purchases I've ever made.

Because of the location of the downstairs litter box, we chose Nature's Miracle Advanced High Sided Corner Litter Box. It's perfect for an "out-of-the-way" corner spot and has an incredible amount of space to move around. And with the triangle shape and 10" high sides, I'm never concerned with an accident outside of the box.

  • Size Matters When You're Buying a Litter Box. This is a common mistake made by many cat lovers because cats are so nimble. However, cats need room to do their doody.  Cats can be very particular about the size, shape, depth, and other aspects of their litter box. Your cat's litter box should be big enough for them to freely move around.

    As a general rule, the correct size litter box should be at least as long as your cat, from their nose to the tip of tail (when extended). Its width should be at least as wide as your cat is long (with their tail not extended).

Hopefully, this gives you some options when trying to maintain a colorful home and a healthy cat! See what works for your situation and your cat's personality. It's still important to pay close attention to any abnormal behavior your cat may be showing after being around your non-toxic plants.

Although your plants may be safe for cats from a toxicity standpoint, your feline may consume enough of a leaf to cause an upset stomach. Depending on the leaf's shape and how much they eat, there's a risk of a possible gastrointestinal obstruction or even a foreign body in their nose.

Unusual Cat Behavior to Look Out For:

  • Coughing
  • Gagging
  • Sneezing
  • Vomiting
  • Decreased Appetite
  • Pawing at Mouth or Nose

If you notice any of these symptoms or anything else concerning contact your veterinarian immediately. For additional information on plant and flower toxicity, ASPCA's Animal Poison Control Center Hotline is a great resource.

Book of Cat Health and Safety Tips

Share your favorite tips or tricks to keep your cat out of your plants in the comments below!

About the author

Profile picture for Chris Boicelli

Chris Boicelli

Chris Boicelli is a contributor to Preventive Vet’s website. Having spent two decades producing television news, he finds Preventive Vet’s mission of education very rewarding. He lives in Seattle with his wife and two kids and is caretaker to two family cats, Raja and Zsa Zsa. There could be a dog in their future, but it’s still being discussed. Raja and Zsa Zsa are currently against the idea.

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