Creating a pet friendly garden

Pet garden

There is a misconception that pets and gardens are not compatible, you have to choose one over the other. The good news for animal lovers is that you can create or remodel your garden into a purpose-built outdoor haven for any type of household companion.

And no, you do not need to build a prison yard! Pets and plants are not mutually exclusive, in fact the garden, as a space to play and escape the indoor environment, is likely to improve your pet’s physical and mental health. I am talking about a habitat you can enjoy as much as your cat or dog. Banish thoughts of wall-to-wall power-washable slabs with a kennel or cat box at the far end! 

You can as easily start from scratch as you can tweak your existing garden to make it more appealing and safe for your pets. In the process of making a garden tolerant of pet activity you can plan it so that it maintains both an appreciable aesthetic and ease of maintenance to suit your needs.  

Whatever your starting point you can have a wonderful space to share your companionship.  

Later on I will look at the plants to avoid – those harmful to pets – but like any garden make up or makeover the structure and layout is the key to success.  


Design for behaviour and species
Renewing or starting anew, there are just a few simple things to bear in mind. The first is that  some elements of the design can be tailored to suit the type of pet you have. 

Cats and dogs display different behaviour patterns; for example ornamental grasses will let cats explore their environment in hunter mentality – something as essential to a feline’s wellbeing as deep sleep. When it comes to the canine, a shorter lawn or flag paving will allow rolling and running space for playful dogs.  

The sex of your pet is also a consideration in elements of your garden design; female dogs tend to urinate in lawns (think discolouration)* while leg-cocking boy dogs will go against shrubs and border plants as well as containers and let’s face it, anything vertical. 

For cats there is no harm in providing an outdoor litter box especially if you have gravel paths or stone mulches. The waste issue is resolved with training, as you would employ for indoor situations. 

The boundary of your garden is also important. If you have a dog then a solid fence is best. Hedges and trellis rows offer too many opportunities for dogs to probe and dig under or break through. In terms of height 1.2 metres is enough for smaller dogs, you could go to 2m for more agile, athletic or bigger dogs. 

Cats, meanwhile, are undaunted by fences and will get over the top of anything. It is in their nature to wander and return. But if there are enough exploration opportunities within the garden, they will content themselves there more often. A simple thick tree stake or a judiciously placed fencing post will provide cats with their very own outdoor scratching post. 

Dogs love to dig and it may be a case of leaving them a digging patch, hidden by some shrubs or tall ornamental grasses. Trees are worthwhile to invest in, the shade they provide for summer lounging is of great benefit to dogs and also excellent as a climbing space for cats. 


Select a tree that does not drop fruit as dogs will munch away and be oblivious to stones (choking hazard) or toxic pips. Cats are often vilified for the quantity of garden birds that they kill, so again a non-berry bearing tree is best and also a considered avoidance of bird feeders will lessen the gruesome gifts they bring back to your kitchen after a day playing outside, and will keep local populations of robins and tits safe. 

Store-bought bird food is not the healthiest for foraging pets, so this restriction of wildlife attractors applies to dogs too. Likewise ponds and pond water are not the best source of hydration on a hot day. Pets can drown too so take precautions if you want a pond or already have one.

It is true that informal gardens lend themselves best to sharing with pets; a structured design can easily be undermined by a romping pet that will scratch, dig and generally disturb a carefully crafted border. Equally true is that cats and dogs tend to beeline across all sorts of diagonals, so formal pathways are often ignored.

When it comes to paths, the cleanest and best options are bricks, pavers or concrete. Gravel will be flicked everywhere by dogs and litter-boxed by cats. Mulched paths will turn into a mess in no time and cats could mistake it for a giant litter.

Some mulches can even cause harm; many organic ones have spores and bacteria that are allergenic to pets. Cocoa bean mulch is a by-product of chocolate production and like chocolate, if ingested by dogs it can trigger vomiting, diarrhea and muscle tremors. In extreme cases it can cause the heart rate to increase, hyperactivity and even fatal seizures. 

So if you want to stop weeds with mulches, consider instead mass planting or laying down a weed membrane. That said, bare soil is an invitation to dig and while the membrane will keep the weeds down it can also be inviting for dogs to tear at. 


Safe planting
Mass planting is therefore my favoured solution, also because of the aesthetics. Plus it will help you  steer your pet around the garden. Low growing hedges or shrubs will create corridors, and with the addition of softer planting you can offer alternative navigation options. 

Hardier shrubs and grasses can take the punishment of pets and establish quickly. In terms of toxicity most grasses are no problem at all to pets unless the blades are razor sharp so apart from pampas you could develop a prairie planting style by including Stipa arundinacea, Stipa gigantea, Stipa tennuissima, Festuca Intense Blue, Calamagrostis spp., and the list goes on.

Perennials may need protection until established; the more mature the plant the better it can withstand abuse.  Some perennials are tougher than others and the Nepeta species which cats go wild for – so much so that its common name is catnip – will withstand hours and days of cats rolling about in it. 

The issue is that its fragrance will attract other neighbourhood cats as it may in fact be the feline equivalent of a recreation drug. So you may opt to put it on the naughty list!

Safe bedding for your pet includes Viola tricolour, which can have an uncanny resemblance to a cat’s face, and Alyssum. For the border Acanthus, Heuchera, Aquilegias, Campanulas, Lavender and Achillea are all great fillers, the latter two are even used as herbal veterinary medicine. 

It is a nice idea to green roof the pet house; this will not only add a quirky aesthetic to an otherwise utilitarian structure, it will also provide a pit stop for pollinators. If you like that thought you could opt for Calendula, Echeveria spp., Fragaria vesca, Sedum spp. and Sempervivum spp.  

Most but not all herbs are safe for pets – and just like humans how sensitive they are to their effects will vary. There is a growing trend towards holistic pet care so we will soon know more about which plants to grow for that purpose – for now it’s commonly considered to be safe to cultivate Chamomile, Chervil, Coriander, Hyssop, Lavender, Lemon Balm, the range of mints, Parsley, Rosemary, Sage and Thyme. Cat mint is optional.  

If you are worried about your dog chewing every plant in the garden there is a trick you can turn to; adding more bran to his/her diet seems to deter vegetation cravings. Sometimes dogs will eat grass or certain weeds when constipated or with upset stomach – that is natural intuitive medicine. 

Munching on your peony or rose is not. That’s mischief and you will have to garden train your dog as much as you can. Nibbling is less of an issue with cats – scent marking is the main problem and not so easy to train out of. What may help is to give the cat ownership of the territory with an outdoor box and scratching post, hopefully that will lessen their need to mark everything. 


Plants and practices to avoid
Plants that cause irritation or are toxic upon ingestion are the ones to watch out for. The rule to follow is when in doubt – do without.

Foxgloves affect the heart of humans and of most animals but when it specifically comes to cats and dogs the presence and ingestion of rhododendrons and azalea, oleander and lily of the valley can be the cause of cardiac trauma. 

Azaleas and rhododendrons have quite toxic leaves, sheep and horses that mistakenly browse the foliage develop loss of coordination and leg paralysis sometimes leading to coma and death.   Dogs and cats don’t usually care much for these plants and usually avoid them, but so should you. 

While Lily plants including the Easter lily, Tiger lily and even the Day lily can trigger acute kidney failure in cats, it is not just ingestion of a bulb but contact with the pollen that can be severe. Lilies are not great for dogs either but dogs need to consume high quantities of the plant to be harmed. Cats need only a little. 

Generally speaking garden bulbs, from daffodils to gladiolus, are not good but it is ingestion of the actual bulb that is the problem so if planted deeply or up in wall mounted containers then the issue may not arise. 

Tuberous plants like begonia fall into the same hazard category as do cyclamen. 

Other plants to avoid would be carnations and chrysanthemums which can both trigger pet dermatitis. The aroma, let alone the consumption of tomato plants can trigger hyper-salivation in both cats and dogs – which in summer can cause serious stress to the pet or worse, completely dehydrate. 

In fact it is best to shield off any food crops if you are a home grower. Potatoes can cause digestive upset and onions can trigger changes in red blood cells known as Heinz body anaemia. 

On a daily basis being pet-safe means practicing organic gardening; avoid harm by steering clear of fertilisers, insecticides, weed killers and other garden chemicals. Apart from ingestion there can be chemical sensitivity to the respiratory tract, eyes, skin and fur. Think it through, you may try to hide snail bait out of the reach of the dog or cat but most snail and slug pellets contains metaldehyde which can kill birds who feed on the poisoned snail and can thus also intoxicate your pet if they chew the felled avian. 

The backbone of organic gardening is to feed the soil and not the plant so well rotted manure and homemade compost are essential features. Manure is not a problem but there is an issue with compost heaps in the form of spore allergies and numerous toxic particles such as moldy food scraps and items like coffee grains and tea bags, which are beneficial to the heap but detrimental to the pet. 

Heaps need air flow to work properly and are generally surrounded by pallets or lats so simply add some chicken wire to make it pet safe. A lot of it is common sense but you have to spend a few moments in the garden with a pen and paper and make a snag list. The first aim is to avoid the dog getting out (and the fox getting in), the second is to look at it from the point of view of your pet and list all of the potential dangers.  

You’ll quickly find a way to put together a garden where pets can be themselves and be safe while still having attractive foliage and flowers in each season for you to enjoy – once the snags are fixed, the bad plants removed and the good ones planted, then there is a garden you both can enjoy!

Additional information: Kerry Parkhill BVMS MRCVS Cedarmount Veterinary Clinic, 67 Bryansburn Road, Bangor, Co Down BT20 3SD 

tel. 028 9127 1364 


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About Fiann O Nuallain

Award winning garden designer, author and broadcaster, Fiann has a background in fine art, sculpture, horticulture, ethnobotany and complementary medicine. He currently is a co-presenter on RTE 1’s Dermot’s Secret Garden programme and is a regular SelfBuild & Improve Your Home columnist. Check out Fiann's blog on or send him a tweet @HolisticG

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