How to Keep Cats Out of Your Garden

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Robert Pavlis

Do you hate strange cats using your yard as a personal litter box?  You’re not alone. Keeping cats out of your garden is a big problem that comes up all the time on social media.

In this post I’ll examine the many proposals for controlling cats to see which ones actually work. Spoiler alert – most suggests are just myths and don’t work or are not practical, but some are worth trying.

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Best Way to Keep Cats Out of Yards

The bad news is that there is no “best” way. In fact, most suggestions you find online or in social media don’t work or are very ineffective. Even the ones that work, don’t work all of the time. Each garden is different and as you will see below, each cat reactions differently. What works for one cat may not work for another. The advice from experts is that multiple methods need to be tried to see which work in your situation. In the end you will probably need to use several methods to control cats.

Why Are Cats a Problem?

Cats don’t do a lot of damage to plants and they do control mice and other rodents so where is the problem?

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Cats like to use your garden as a toilet. Their poop contain diseases that can spread to you when you work in the soil. Their urine smells but poses no health risk. Cats also hunt birds and they are a key reason for a drop in the number of song birds. “Experts say that cats kill between 1 and 4 billion birds every year, causing one-third of the 800 U.S. native bird species to be endangered or in significant decline”

Cats should be kept indoors, or be confined to the owners yard. They should not be roaming other peoples yards.

Having said that, it is important to understand that there are a lot of feral cats. These are wild cats with no homes and no owners to control them. Don’t be too quick to blame your neighbors just because you see a cat in your yard.

Why are Cats in Your Yard?

Cats are in your garden for two reasons: relaxation and food.

They are natural hunters and tend to wander around their favorite spots to catch a meal. Mice are at your compost pile, birds are at your feeder and voles are digging in your lawn. When they hunt, they are usually just passing through your garden. Granted they might drop a load here and there on the way. By keeping fresh meat (mice, birds, etc) out of your garden, you will also deter cats.

They might also visit because your garden has a nice place to relax. They love a smooth dry soil patch that provides some shade. Eliminate these from the garden and cats are less likely to stick around.

Cats are more active during twilight and night-time so freshen repellents and prepare barriers for higher use during those times.

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Deterrents for Cats in Gardens

There are several different types of deterrents to keep cats out of the garden.

  • Texture – cats like smooth surfaces and they don’t like sharp spiky things.
  • Scent – cats are attracted to some scents and dislike others that keep them away.
  • Repellents – commercial and DIY sprays.
  • Water – a good spray of water deters most cats.
  • Electronics – cats don’t like ultrasonic noise which can be used to keep them out.
  • Physical barriers – the right ones work well.
  • Reverse psychology – for both you and the cat.

Use Texture to Keep Cats Out of the Garden

Cats don’t like walking on sharp spiky things like the following:

  • pine cones, rose clippings
  • wood chips as a mulch
  • wire mesh
  • cat spikes – spiked plastic mesh made to deter cats

Except for wood chips which you should be using anyway even if you don’t have a cat problem, the other items are not really practical. You can’t spread them all over the garden. They can however be used in a small area that cats are using for their resting spot, or in a planter.

Here are some other suggestions that are ridiculous.

Plastic forks – this might work in a planter but you would need a million of them for a garden. Remember that they are not UV-resistant and quickly become brittle. Then they break into little sharp plastic bits and get mixed into your soil. Besides they don’t even work. Cats just push them out of the way and walk through them.

Eggshells – a cat is heavy enough that they will just break the shells as they walk on them. They don’t work. Besides, where do you get enough eggshells to cover your whole garden?

Cocoa bean shells – may work but they are toxic to dogs and possibly other pets. They contain more theobromine per ounce than most chocolate products.

cat smelling blue flowers
Cat not being repelled by lavender

Plants that Stop Cats from Pooping in Your Garden

Apparently cats hate certain plants because of their scent.

  • citronella
  • lavender
  • mint
  • rosemary
  • chives
  • rue

The problem with this list is that there is no scientific evidence that any of them work. Gardeners tend to believe that any fragrant plant will repel pests but it is usually not true largely because plant scents are not that strong. Other gardeners report that their cat likes smelly plants and that  “their cat likes to roll and sleep on mint”. Here is what we do know about some of these scented plants.

Rue (Ruta graveolens). Pliny, the Roman naturalist, first mentioned its supposed cat repellent properties in his encyclopedia, around AD 50. I can’t find a single study that looks at its repellent effect on cats.

The scaredy cat plant. Also called the piss-off plant, (Coleus canina, now Plectranthus caninus) has long been reported to repel cats and extracts from it are used to make products like Scaredy Cat, Dog’s Gone and Bunnies Gone. Despite its unpleasant odor, the scaredy cat plant does not repel cats or dogs. There seems to be no evidence that the commercial products work either. However it might keep humans out of the garden since the scent it releases is reminiscent of skunks.

The only evidence for repelling plants is anecdotal and that is not reliable. Even if a plant would keep a cat away, you would need to fill your whole garden with it. Having one or two in the garden will do nothing.

Other Scents That Repel Cats

  • coffee grounds
  • lion poop
  • mothballs
  • citrus peels

Lion poop. Lion poop is reported to scare cats away. This was tested by the show, Myth Busters and found not to work. Initially, cats avoid it, but they quickly realize that there is no lion present. Where do you get lions poop, well you can buy it by the box as Silent Roar. The Scardey Cat website had this to say, “cat poop can mask the smell of lion poop pellets, herbs and spices, so I would always make sure to go on out daily and remove any cat poop from my garden as soon as possible”. That is not exactly a ringing endorsement for these products!

Coffee grounds. Lots of people use coffee grounds in the garden and still have cat problems. Most cats are indifferent to coffee grounds while others are actually attracted to the stuff. They don’t keep cats away.

Mothballs. It is not clear that their smell repels cats but you should not use mothballs or moth flakes. It is both illegal to use them and dangerous. They are toxic to almost anything that eats them including children who think they are candy.

Citrus peels. There is no evidence that citrus peels repel cats. How do you ever get enough to cover your whole garden, which you would need to do almost daily because the rinds lose their scent very quickly once peeled. A few sprinkled in one corner will do little to control cats.

Don’t Use Cayenne Pepper

Cayenne pepper does not repel cats although many claim it will. Cats don’t even notice that it is there and will walk right over it, and that is a problem. Once on their paws, they get it in their eyes where it cause the same pain that you experience rubbing your eyes after cutting hot peppers. If they ingest cayenne pepper it can cause severe intestinal distress. The claim that it blinds them is a myth.

It is odd that the humane society in the US promotes the use of cayenne pepper; “many TNR practitioners swear by sprinkling coffee grounds or cayenne pepper to deter cats from small areas”.

Repellants for Cats

A number of commercial and DIY repellant sprays can also be used. The EPA list of registered cat repellents includes oils from lemongrass, mustard, anise, eucalyptus and soybean. Note that these are extracted oils, not the growing plants. The University of Nebraska reports that, “there is little objective evidence, however, of these chemicals’
effectiveness. When used outdoors, repellents must be reapplied frequently”. Commercial products that contain things like cinnamon, clove oil, thyme and garlic, coyote urine are even less likely to work.

One commercial product called Nature’s MACE, suggests spraying it daily for a week. Using repellents is time consuming and costly.

Use Water to Keep Cats Out of the Garden

Cats hate being sprayed with water. You could stand outside all day with a hose, or buy an automated motion activated sprinkler that sprays water only when the cat comes in range. It also works on other types of animals and even people.

This system does work, except that cats are quite smart and they quickly learn to ovoid it. This means you have to frequently move it around the yard until they get so frustrated they stop coming around.

cat walking through sprinklers on a lawn
Cat not being scared by water, source: Sebnem Gulfidan

Use Ultrasound to Keep Cats Out of the Garden

Ultrasonic devices are reported to create high-pitched frequency to scare cats. These are usually solar powered and can be trigger by a motion sensor. Some examples of commercial products include RibRave, PestGate and HiAnifri. A study that looked at the behavior of 10 cats to an ultrasonic device found that when the device was on, cats showed increased ear flicking, less time spent actively exploring and an increased amount of time near the device. It seemed to attract them – not repel them.

A second study did two experiments. The first had “a moderate deterrent effect, reducing the probability of a cat intrusion by 32%” , but no reduction in the second experiment. A third study found that “ultrasonic deterrents reduced the frequency of incursions into gardens by resident cats by 46%“.

Anecdotal evidence suggest they might work for a short while but that cats quickly get accustomed to them.

Use Physical Barriers to Keep Cats Out

This may be the only method that works well if it is done right. Remember cats can climb. This method is not very practical for a whole garden but would work for a smaller vegetable garden. Cats don’t climb fences made from chicken wire or chain link. They don’t climb metal posts but can climb wood posts. Bury the fence at the bottom to prevent them from tunneling under the fence.

Electric fences also work.

Things That Attract Cats

Don’t grow plants that will attract them:

  • catnip
  • silver vine
  • Tatarian honeysuckle
  • valerian

Even though cats can be attracted to plants they don’t all have equal love for a given plant. Almost 80% of the domestic cats responded to silver vine (Actinidia polygama), 68% to catnip and 50% to Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) and valerian (Valeriana officinalis) root. All cats responded to at least one of these. The amount of nepetalactone, a known cat attractant, was highest in catnip and very low in the other plants.

You should also secure trash bins and clear away debris where mice might live.

Reverse Psychology

If cats are using your garden for a toilet or to rest, provide them with a spa experience. Place a sandbox away from where you don’t want them. Plant some catnip next to it to make them really welcome.

Other Options

A live dog will work in most cases. Dog hair spread on the ground or hung in onion bags usually won’t work because cats know the difference.

Plastic bottles of water have also been suggested. The sun shinning through them is reported to scar cats away. This was tested by the show Myth Busters and shown not to work.

Do Cats Have Legal Rights?

In the UK, “cats have the right to roam, which means that they are legally allowed to wander into your garden. They are also protected by the Animal Welfare Act 2006″. In legal terms it is a bit more complicated, but when we discussed this in our FaceBook Group, Garden Fundamentals, it became clear that this is not just UK based. Various locations give cats the right to be in your garden. Know your local law when you talk to a neighbor about a cat problem.

A Catnip Facial Keeps Cats Safe!

Do you know why cats like catnip (Nepeta cataria)? There are a couple of reasons. They rub their face in it to transfer nepetalactol onto their face and head, which repels mosquitoes, Aedes albopictus. The nepetalactol also increases plasma endorphin levels that give the cat a bit of a high. No bugs and feeling good – what is not to love. The same effect is produced by silver vine (Actinidia polygama).

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

3 thoughts on “How to Keep Cats Out of Your Garden”

  1. Great post. Thankyou for dispelling the myths. I loved growing up with cats but the big roaming black cat from my neighbour’s house knows my harsh “skit”. It used to hide under a yew waiting to attack birds at my feeders so I removed the shrub and planted a dwarf cypress. Problem solved.

  2. I don’t have a problem with strange cats, just two of my own. They keep the rodent population down and don’t normally kill birds (maybe one or two a year). They are rescue cats and not indoor cats, because they never were as they were abandoned as kittens. They don’t wander except next door. But they do poop in my raised beds. Once the plants in the beds are big enough, they go somewhere else.

    Have considered an outdoor litter box, but not sure it would get used. Wood chip mulch helps for the most part and constant patrolling to remove the poop. Not a huge problem but somewhat annoying because they dig up young plants. Fleece also helps but has to be well anchored.

  3. I would love to know how, and under what conditions chlorophyll can move from a plant to a nearby structure such that the structure is full of green splotches. Thank you, Ken Traynham


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