Make your garden a pet haven

Jean Vernon
23 May 2022 - 5 min read
Cat and dog playing in the garden

Award winning garden writer Jean Vernon gives us her timely tips and ideas for sharing your garden with pets, children and wildlife.

Grassy knolls and hidey holes

Our pets just love to romp, roll and play in the garden, so it’s great if there is space to run around.

Paths mown through long grass show them the route to take, but often they want a place to rest and relax. Make them a sunning spot where they can laze in the summer sun. A high point is a good choice so that they can survey everything around them.

Cats and dogs like a hidey-hole and make little snoozing nests in long grass or under bushes.

Prune your shrubs so that there’s pet space underneath and look at planting a pet-safe, ground hugging plant underneath to create a living carpet. Something like bugle (ajuga reptans) is a good choice.

Or make a waterproof cat or dog cabin in the garden complete with a comfy cushion and maybe a sprig or two of dried catmint. Add a few treats to get your pet used to going inside and you’ve created a lovely chill out zone.

Cat hiding in shade in the garden

Don’t forget that cats love to be up high where they can observe the proceedings. Make them an outdoor climbing tower where they can sit atop and view the world.

Watching where your pet likes to hang out is a good place to start. Then you can work on making it an even better place for them to rest and relax.

Placing a favourite treat or chew where you want your pet to be is always a good way to get them to make good associations with that part of the garden.

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A person high fiving a dog
A person high fiving a dog

Play zone

Cats and dogs love to play. Outdoor toys are a good place to start. Dogs love to chase balls, which are much safer than sticks and there are plenty of treat dispensing balls and toys available to add to the fun factor.

Dog with garden toys

Cats love to watch the birds. They’ll play with feathers and chase butterflies and pretty much anything that moves.

Make them a swinging toy hanging from a hanging basket bracket and don’t forget to add some catmint somewhere in the garden. You might need to protect it with an upturned wire, hanging basket (empty of course) to protect the spring growth from over zealous kitty cuddles.

Keeping a live catmint plant gives you a great source of material for your catnip mice and toys and of course it has glorious blue flowers that are a magnet with pollinators.

Hide and seek

It’s good fun playing hide and seek with a pet, especially if your garden is large and full of nooks and crannies or mounds and hollows.

Young pets especially love an active game. You can hide behind a tree and pop out and surprise them, or chase them around dropping down behind a shrub or a seat. Take care that there are no prickly plants or spiky stems sticking out.

You can also make your garden a fun and rewarding place to be, by hiding treats around your plot.  It’s a great way to keep pets occupied, local and to see your garden as a really fun and rewarding place to be.

Somewhere to dig

Cats and dogs love to dig in the garden. So make them a dedicated spot for it.

It could be a sandpit where your cat can toilet, or a special raised bed area for your dog to dig up treasure. Get them in the mood by hiding treats or burying bones around their special digging zone.

A child’s paddling pool could make the perfect outer or even an adapted wooden pallet (but beware of nails), it’s important that the area drains freely so it doesn’t become waterlogged and that you can regularly remove any pet deposits that might soil the area.

Dog in a sandpit

You can protect precious places where you don’t want them to dig, with fencing, cloches or by providing your pets with a separate, enclosed space where they can run and play safely. Or you could plant a low hedge around an area that’s out of bounds.

Nibbling grass

Cats and dogs do like to nibble on grass, and you can grow special wheat grass for them to eat. Try growing a seed tray of wheat grass (Avena sativa) to make a grass turf for your pet.

Cat eating wheatgrass

Pets may also eat the lawn grass, avoid treating it with any chemicals so it’s safe for them.

Some ornamental grasses can also be a pet hazard. Wiry or coarse leaved ornamental grasses can become stuck in a pet’s throat or nose and be very painful.

To be completely safe it’s best not to grow these in your garden, or if you must, choose to grow them in hanging baskets and window boxes out of reach of your pet.

Water of life

All creatures need a source of water. A birdbath or a water feature is a great way to attract all sorts of creatures to your plot and provide drinking water for your pets.

Always make sure there’s a shallow end and an escape route for easy exit. Keep the water clean and aerated and never use antifreeze in any outdoor water to stop it freezing. Pets and wildlife can be severely poisoned by antifreeze.

Safe plants

There’s probably no such thing as a safe plant. But there are safer choices. If your pets help prune your garden plants then you might want to avoid growing anything with spines and prickles in case they ingest them.

And be aware that some plants are toxic. To be completely safe create a safe area for your pets planted with safe choices and exclude them from the rest of the garden when unsupervised.

Cat in a catmint shrub

Choose herbs like calendula, mint, lavender, rosemary, sage and thyme or grow fruit trees like apples and pears. Dogs love to play ball with an apple, or pick the strawberries straight from the plants. Catmint is an essential choice if you have cats.

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Garden hazards

Everywhere in life are hazards, but by being aware and being careful we can protect our pets from harm.

Young animals are particularly prone to ‘grazing’ on things that can do them harm – almost a third of pet insurance claims for puppies in 2021 were for poisoning.

The most obvious garden hazards are toxic chemicals. Weedkiller is probably the most common. To be completely safe it’s better to ditch all chemicals from your plot – this will benefit your pets as well as any wildlife or children that visit your garden.

Some plants are poisonous, so always err on the side of caution when you choose what to grow. Avoid things like foxgloves, daffodils, monk’s hood, daphne, potatoes and yew, but there are many others.

Lilies and their pollen is poisonous to cats and dogs, so it’s best not to grow lilies in your garden if you have pets. Be careful with cut flowers too.

Slugs and snails may be infected with lungworm, so make sure that your dogs stay clear.

Dog looking at a snail

Secure the compost bin too to prevent pets from eating food scraps or mouldy material. There are several species of mushrooms that that are harmful to dogs. They’re more commonly encountered on walks, but could also pop up around the garden too.

Cats and dogs love to investigate strange noises and interesting smells. If your garden is adjacent to countryside you may find all sorts of wildlife in your garden. Keep an eye on your pets to keep them safe. Be aware of any potential dangers such as insect bites and stings and local wildlife.

Making memories

The best way to keep your pets safe in the garden is to be outside with them so that you can observe their behaviour, play with them and make the garden and fun place to be.

Involve your friends and family, create games to play together and make the most of your outdoor space, making lovely memories to cherish forever.