Q: I’m writing about a serious problem that surely plagues gardeners everywhere. It’s what to do about neighborhood cats that use vegetable and flower gardens for litter boxes. Fences keep dogs out but cats, left to run free, are able to contaminate undeterred.
No one would be allowed to dump toxic waste into our food supply, but cats can do it every day. Do you have any suggestions for dealing with this disgusting health issue? Thoughtless cat owners “just don’t get it.”
—Marc, J. Jankovich, Allentown
A: This subject pits gardeners against cat lovers. As a long-time member of both camps, I do have a few comments and suggestions.
How dangerous are cat feces?
There have been numerous articles on the dangers of cat feces in the garden. Are they true?
To a point: The feces of cats can contain a multitude of parasites including the one that causes toxoplasmosis, a disease that can be dangerous to pregnant women or those with a weak immune system. The parasites are present in many other mammals. The difference is that these particular parasites can only complete their life cycle in the intestines of a cat.
Cat feces also contain parasites for roundworm, hookworm and tapeworm. However, if gardeners wear gloves, wash their hands and rinse and wash any harvested crops, they will greatly decrease any chance of infection.
So, is it incredibly dangerous?
Not really, although there are some risks. In truth, most of the content of cat poop is similar to that of other animals — cows, birds, etc. that we pay others to collect. I am not promoting cat feces as a fertilizer, but it isn’t the end of the world either. The balances of nitrogen, potassium and potash aren’t quite the same, digging up cat feces is not a pleasant gardening experience and there is the slim risk of infection.
It is irresponsible to allow your cats to poop in the neighbor’s garden.
Yes, I know cats love roaming free, chasing everything that moves, sunbathing and exploring everywhere. However, we no longer live in a world where that is possible. There are too many dangers out there to allow cats to roam free.
I allow our cat outside — but only when she is leashed and under the direct supervision of Fran or me. She has about 16 feet of freedom, and I have the peace of mind that she is nearby and safe. Cat on a leash? Some may find it impossible but it is no more unnatural than a leashed dog. Neither come to it naturally but both can be trained to them. Laws, respect for others, and concern for the safety of our pets dictate that we restrict their freedom.
People do dreadful things to cats. They dump unwanted kittens, pregnant cats and others that have just become inconvenient. They allow unrestricted breeding by neglecting to neuter their pets and then make it worse by allowing them to roam free. They move and just leave the poor animals to fend for themselves. And much worse — abuse and torture are also possible.
Outdoors is a dangerous place. I have seen uncontrolled breeding — kittens everywhere, cats stressed and unhealthy from too frequent litters and regular dumping of unwanted pets. Cats need to be neutered.
Then there are the other dangers — traffic, dogs, other cats, predatory animals, traps, poisons, disease and mean people. Even in our rather rural setting, there are unseen dangers.
Our neighbor Jack mentioned several times that he had foxes on the edge of his lawn. Well, recently he told us that his cat was at the vet. Seems Sammy was on the losing end of a fight with a fox. I’m sure that he was investigating somewhere he shouldn’t have — a den perhaps. Foxes generally give birth in March or April. Sammy will be OK but on restricted rest for the next several weeks.
Despite, or because of, my love for cats, I don’t believe that they should be allowed to roam free in most situations.
Do not use deterrents that hurt the cats or other animals. Mothballs, for example, are an old remedy. However, they can be toxic to small children, dogs and cats. They also contain some pesticides that should definitely not be used around food crops.
There are some good options and a few that work for some gardeners.
Some people place cut-up lengths of garden hose in the beds to imitate large garden snakes. My cats, over the years, have viewed most garden snakes as oversized cat toys. Perhaps others have had better results with this method.
Anything that covers or masks the loose soil is good. Chicken wire, coarse mulch, stone mulch, spiky mats all make the soil less tempting. Some people have used upturned plastic forks or small twigs inserted into the soil.
Scent is also a good deterrent — the right scents. Cats seem to have an inherent dislike for the herb rue. Grow it or scatter dried rue in the garden to discourage visits. Cats also seem to dislike citrus fruits; scattering fresh orange, lemon or grapefruit peels deters them. Oil of lavender, lemon grass, citronella and eucalyptus are also unpopular with most cats. Other suggestions include scattering coffee grounds or spraying vinegar around the garden.
Netting is another option but generally not worth the time and effort, as it must be removed for planting, weeding and harvesting.
My favorite deterrent is water. I bought Fran a motion-detecting water sprayer that has been effective against deer. I’ve heard that it also works well for cats and dogs. The sudden spray unsettles them. Super Soakers and other water pistols also work but the cat connects with you as the threat, not the water so they just come back when you aren’t around.
Sue Kittek is a freelance garden columnist, writer and lecturer. Send questions to Garden Keeper at firstname.lastname@example.org or mail: Garden Keeper, The Morning Call, P.O. Box 1260, Allentown, PA 18105.
•Start seed for: Eggplant, summer squash, winter squash, baby’s breath, cosmos and zinnias.
•Direct sow: Chinese cabbage, endive, escarole, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, head and leaf lettuce. Also sow: beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, peas, radishes, spinach and turnips.
•Continue planting seeds for transplanting for: Balsam bachelor buttons, calendula, cockscomb, gaillardia, marigold, morning glory, nasturtium, cantaloupe, melon and Swiss chard.
•Plant bare root trees and shrubs when the soil is warm and dry enough to work.
•When the soil warms, plant bare-root trees and shrubs. Make sure the soil is dry enough to work. Don’t dig or plant in mud.
•Follow a schedule for starting seeds. Check packets for instructions such as start indoors four weeks before last frost date. Then, using a calendar, count back from your area’s date (April 10-15 for southern Lehigh Valley, May 10-15 for northern areas) for the appropriate starting time.
•Visit nurseries as they open for inspiration as well as for new plants. Shop for summer bulbs as well.
•Apply a top dressing of compost to lawns and beds.
•Test soil for new beds, Retest soil in poorly performing areas or those that haven’t been tested in the last 3-5 years.
•Cut back ornamental grasses. Divide when you see new green growth.
•Prune and divide perennials that bloom in late summer or fall.
•Prune back and clear out dead, diseased or unattractive stems from perennials and shrubs, but not those that flower in the spring. Please check proper pruning information for each plant and prune as needed and recommended.
•Rake back winter mulches. Spring and summer mulch should be two to three inches deep and applied a few inches away from foundations, tree trunks and other plants. Fluff mulch and add more if necessary.
•Begin broadleaf weed control now through mid-May
•Plan and order sod for installation in mid-April through May.
•Apply pre-emergent crab grass control in the next few weeks.
•Fill in holes and low spots in lawn and seed.
•Seed or overseed lawns now until mid-May
•If you use corn gluten based weed control in the garden, start applying this month and establish a schedule for reapplication, usually at four to six week intervals.
•Check stored summer bulbs each month. Discard and replace rotting bulbs, rehydrate shriveled ones.
•Clear winter debris: branches, leaves, and dead annuals. Mark off beds, new plantings, plants that are late to break dormancy in the spring and delicate plants.
•Clear storm damage as it occurs. Photograph damage before clearing or repairing for insurance claims and file promptly.
•Provide deer, rabbit and groundhog protection for vulnerable plants. Reapply taste or scent deterrents.
•Clean and fill bird feeders regularly; provide fresh water. Clean up spilled seed and empty hulls.
•Tools, equipment and supplies:
•Calculate amount of spring mulch needed then order or buy it.
•Inventory and restock seed starting and potting supplies. Clean and disinfect post and trays used for seed starting and transplants.
•Check spring equipment and supplies, repair or replace. Sharpen blades, get fresh gas, check and/or replace oil. Send mowers and tractors for tune-up or repair.
•Store cleaned and repaired fall and winter tools. Clean, sharpen and oil hand tools.
•Clear lawns of any debris before mowing.
•Always wear closed toe shoes when mowing or doing other potentially dangerous gardening tasks.
•Don’t prune anything that can’t be reached from the ground.
•Check for ticks after every outing.
•Wear gloves to protect hands; use eye protection when cutting or chopping; and use appropriate ear protection when using any loud power tools.