Cat's cradle
Publication Date: Friday Sep 15, 1995

Cat's cradle

Gardens provide pleasure--and peril--for cats

by Diane Sussman

Let's construct cat heaven. For a bed, catmint. For aromatherapy, teucrium. For a tasty bite, oat grass. For a good time, catnip.

Tanning salon, vitamin aisle, sharpening tool, mineral bank, gym, salad bar, drugstore--gardens can give all this and more to a cat.

They can also mean peril. The same grass that provides needed chlorophyll can deliver a deadly dose of fertilizer or pesticide. The same vitamin D-producing sunshine can cause skin cancer in a fair or white-nosed cat. The same bee that inspired those aerial flips can cause anaphylactic shock.

"Cats love to roll around in the dirt, get into your plants and chase small flying insects," said Palo Alto veterinarian Barbara Kollin. "Any of these things can get them into trouble."

A few simple steps go a long way toward making your garden a welcome place for cats.

The first is, poison is poison. What is deadly to rats, snails, slugs, mice, raccoons or deer is equally deadly to cats. "The systemic poisons are the worst," said Kollin. "Some cause the animal to die from internal hemorrhaging. You wouldn't want your children or your animal to be exposed to it."

Pellet-style pesticides present an almost irresistible invitation to feed. "They are sugar-coated and grain-based," said Kollin. "To a pet, it might as well be dry food."

A cat doesn't need to ingest a substance to feel the effects. Stepping in a pool of slug bait, brushing against a pesticide-treated plant, rolling in recently fertilized dirt or batting an ant trap can leave a chemical residue on the cat's fur or paws that can be licked off and swallowed later.

When working with pesticides and fertilizers, Kollin advises taking the following precautions.

Use a pyrethrin-based insecticide. Pyrethrin sprays, like Safer, are made from pyrethrum, a type of chrysanthemum. They also help ward off fleas and ticks.

Apply snail bait in small droplets, spaced well apart. "No puddles," said Kollin. "The bigger the puddle, the bigger the potential danger."

Better yet, do as Kollin does. Avoid chemicals altogether and pick off diseased leaves by hand. "It's time consuming, I know," she said. "But it's a lot safer."

Eradicating chemicals won't automatically turn your garden into a feline buffet. Many common plants are lethal to cats. Foremost among them is oleander. "Depending on the time of year and the amount of toxin, as little as a single leaf can kill," said Peggy Kendrick of the Poison Control Hotline at Valley Medical Center Hospital.

Other killer plants include morning glory, lobelia, lily of the valley, wisteria pods, large-leaf ivy, narcissus bulbs, rhododendron and dieffenbachia.

Then there are the so-called "Christmas plants": mistletoe, amaryllis, Jerusalem cherry, English holly and poinsettia. The worst Christmas hazard of the season isn't a plant at all, it's tinsel, said Kollin. "It's tinsel at Christmas time, but it's string, wire or rubber bands the rest of the year."

Last of all, beware the dreaded murder mystery plants, such as hemlock, nightshade and arsenic. "Basically, whatever is toxic to humans is toxic to cats, only in much smaller quantities," said Kendrick.

So what can your cat eat? Many of the same flowers and plants you would eat: nasturtiums, rose petals, zinnias, thyme, sage, parsley, oregano, spinach, rosemary, bean sprouts, cantaloupe, carrots--but not potato or tomato leaves.

Grasses are good and provide cats with chlorophyll. Almost any grass will do: oat grass, clover, alfalfa, barley, wheat grass--even ornamental grasses.

Think of your garden as more of a spice rack and vitamin supplement for your cat than as a meals-on-stalks program. "Cats are carnivores," said Kollin. "They're not meant to be vegetarians."

A certain amount, but not too much. "Cats are supposed to eat small animals," said Kollin. "Their digestive system isn't set up to handle a large amount of plants and greens. Too much green matter and they throw up," said Kollin.

And, she adds, we all know exactly where they will throw up. "On your white bedspread."

If it's the ultimate feline treat you're looking for, think catmint (Nepeta mussinni) or catnip (Nepeta cataria). Both are easy to grow. Catmint has the added advantage of being beautiful, forming low mounds that put out a profusion of lavender flower sprays in the spring. "They look really nice under roses," said Kollin. Pollinating honeybees enjoy them as well as cats.

Then there's catnip. The grey-green plants grow to three feet tall and have attractive, heart-shaped leaves. Let your cat enjoy them naturally or dry them by collecting the leafy branches and hanging them in a paper bag to dry. Stuff them into felt toys or wrap them inside sachet bags.

Last of all, remember that we are talking cats here. Which means that in the entire vegetable kingdom (and for that matter, in the entire dry and wet food kingdom) there is no one single item that is guaranteed to please all cats. For every easy-to-please Felix, there's a finicky Morris. "Cats are like deer," said Katie Stadem of Shepherd's Seed Company in Felton. "Their taste is completely idiosyncratic."

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