Cat problem in the garden
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Issue: February 5, 2000

Cat problem in the garden

Question:

I live in a neighborhood with many cats, and we do not have any cats in our home. Guess what the neighborhood cats do in my yard? What can I do to eliminate the smell left behind and what can I do to keep them away? I have tried moth balls, pine chips, and several commercial products. I love gardening but really become frustrated by the "mess" of cleaning up after animals and the odor that they leaves behind.

Answer:

Neighbor cats can be a nuisance in the garden. Although trapping is a tempting idea, it may create more problems than it solves. According to Byron Wright, Agriculture Specialist with New Mexico State University Extension Animal Resources, sometimes trapping is the only solution, especially when the problem is due to a male cat marking territory by building piles of feces in the same area. However, it is best to speak to the neighbor before beginning trapping. Cats are very difficult for your neighbor to force to stay home; they are not easily controlled by fencing.

Many things have been suggested for discouraging cats from defecating in gardens, but I have heard negative reports about most of these suggested techniques and products. You have experienced the failure of some of these techniques. There are two methods that have received more positive reports.

First, there is the possibility of redirecting the cats. According to Byron Wright, this will probably not be effective in preventing male cats from marking their territory but may help somewhat in the case of young male cats and females who randomly select their sites to defecate. Some gardeners plant catnip or catmint in a part of the landscape far removed from the area where you do not want them. If such is possible in your landscape, plant the attractive plants and provide a sandy area nearby. That may partially solve the problem, though the undesired feces and odors will still be found in that location. If this area is in an unused corner of your property, the problem my be reduced to a level where it is tolerable.

A second suggestion, which may be used in conjunction with the first, is to make the area where the cats are causing a problem unpleasant to them. The cats find bare soil areas attractive as their "bathroom". Again, this will not be as effective if the problem is the tom cat marking territory. It is the bare, loose soil which is easy for them to scratch in that attracts them. In some cases a covering of coarse, heavy mulch material such as rock may deter the cat from scratching in that location. Byron suggested that bark mulch may be attractive to cats because it is easy to move aside to reach the soil or may just be used to cover the feces. However, the coarse rock may be helpful as Byron stated that even large cats such as mountain lions choose clear, sandy locations in arroyos rather than the rock sites.

Some gardeners have told me that the most effective deterrent is chicken wire covering the area where the cats are inclined to defecate. The wire discourages the digging and scratching which is part of feline behavior. The chicken wire must cover any area with clear, loose soil. It may be removed from that area permanently if the plants growing there do not develop thick stems which would be girdled by the wire. The chicken wire may be removed once the plants begin growing if the plants form a dense cover over the soil. If the cats have moved to a new area because of the chicken wire, they may not return. If the chicken wire cannot remain and the vegetation cover is not dense enough to discourage the cats, a coarse mulch may be used as the plants begin growing. It is the bare soil which is usually attractive to the cats.

The combination of the two techniques, chicken wire and attracting them to an unused area of the landscape, may be the most effective means of solving, or at least reducing, your problem without creating animosity with the neighbors. However, in some cases, especially the problem of tom cats marking territorial sites, trapping may be necessary. In this case, try talking to the neighbor first. They may be frustrated because they know that their cats are hard to keep confined, but it is best to talk to them first and return the cat to the owner after trapping it. In the case of stray cats, trapping and taking them to a local animal shelter may be the only solution.

This is a difficult problem with both gardening and good neighbor considerations. I hope to hear from gardeners who have found other, successful, methods of solving this problem.

Send your gardening questions to Yard and Garden, ATTN: Dr. Curtis Smith, NMSU Cooperative Extension Service, 9301 Indian School Road, NE, Suite 112, Albuquerque, NM 87112. Curtis W. Smith, Ph.D., is an Extension Horticulture Specialist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. New Mexico State University is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer and educator.