Since we recently completed a nice cat porch, a.k.a. Catio, for a client in Palm Desert, I thought I might discuss the issue of toxic plants and animals. We created a beautiful garden in the catio that is not only interesting for the cat to explore, but lovely for the human owners to enjoy as well. Cats like to eat various grasses and chew/rub on various other kinds of plants because it helps them with various aspects of their health or it is simply stimulating. We provided pots of a special blend of cat grasses and other cat herbs (catnip, verbena, lemon grass, cat thyme, parsley) for the cat to enjoy. But more importantly than providing plants for the cat to enjoy was making sure there were no plants in the landscape that might pose a toxic threat to him. Whenever you are bringing plants into your house or yard, it is a good idea to research them to make sure they are not toxic to your children or animals. I have been creating environments for animals of all kinds for over forty years, so I have a pretty good idea of plants that are safe and those that are not. But I still always research any plant about which I have the slightest doubt.
This is not to say that you have to be paranoid about every plant in the landscape. Many toxic plants are widely used, but most animals naturally avoid them, as they have ways of telling that the plant is toxic. For example, oleanders (Nerium oleander) are used extensively throughout Southern California and other areas with a Mediterranean/arid climate. They are highly toxic, but we don’t see cats, dogs, horses, cows and other animals dropping dead all over the place. The primary danger is to young children who are at that age where they put everything in their mouths. But whenever you are creating an enclosed environment, where children or any animals will be in close contact with the plants, it is vital not to use any type of plant that might pose a threat if ingested.
It is also important to remember that there are many plants that may be harmless to one species of animal, like humans, but very toxic to another species, like cats or dogs. This is true for many kinds of toxins. For example, most people now know that chocolate, while harmless to humans, can kill your dog if enough is ingested. On the other hand, the Australian (Sydney) funnel web spider (Atrax robustus) has a toxin that is deadly to humans but barely affects dogs, cats or chickens (which eat the spiders) at all. So if you are creating an enclosed garden where your cat will be playing, don’t research plants that are toxic to humans (unless young children will be playing there also). Research plants that are toxic specifically to cats. On your browser, type in “plants toxic to cats”. There are several good lists of plants, from the ASPCA, various universities and other organizations. The same goes for dogs, turtles, guinea pigs or any other kind of animal you will be keeping in a planted environment. Also, try to research both the common name and scientific (specific) name of the plant, as sometimes the common names can be confusing or incorrect.
A little research in the beginning will prevent unfortunate problems later on.