Designing A Cat Friendly Australian Garden

Updated April 13, 2021

More and more Australians are building an outdoor enclosure, or catio for their cat. Some make it themselves, others pay specialist companies to do it. Either way, there are two things that often get overlooked.

The first, assuming you plan on using them, is choosing plants that are safe for cats. I cover that later with an Australian perspective. The second is designing the space from a cat point of view.

What Makes A Good Cat Garden?

Here’s what cats generally like when outdoors. The more of these we can provide, the more useful (and used) the space will be.

  • Hiding places so cats can see but not be seen
  • Basking places for when cats want to stretch out in the sun
  • Dry dirt to roll in and condition the coat
  • High places to watch passers by and birds
  • Grass to nibble and reduce chewing of other plants
  • Disorder for the jungle cat within

So with that in mind, now let’s select the right plants.

Safe & Non-Toxic Plants For Cats

As a general rule, the showier the plant, the more likely it is to be poisonous. But it’s also worth pointing out that any plant can be toxic if enough is eaten. The items marked with an asterisk (*) have no data but widespread usage suggests that they are safe.

Grasses and Strap-Leafed Plants

To me, these are the most important. Cats love to hang out under the drooping leaves of low, strappy plants. Plantings probably need to be close together to create tunnels or thickets.

  • Clumping grasses, especially Lomandra*
  • Cordyline australis & rubra (others less known)
  • Kangaroo Paw*
  • Sedges (Carex species)*

Notable mention must also go to Dietes (no information is available but I have several) and Dutch or Wood Irises, in which my previous cat made tunnels. Despite being theoretically toxic, the risk seems very low. Bamboo is also good as a screening plant.

Exotic Shrubs

  • Catnip, Cat mint & Cat thyme (worth a try to see if your cat likes them)
  • Diosma (Coleonema pulchrum)*
  • Ferns & Palms (most are fine but avoid Bracken & Cycads)
  • Pittosporum tobira (‘Miss Muffet’ is my favourite)
  • Plumbago auriculata (will need trimming)
  • Rosemary (may attract bees)
  • Star Jasmine (more of a climber but great on fences)

Camellias are also great but very tricky to grow well in our Mediterranean climate.

Native Shrubs

Aussie shrubs are great for cats as they’re often a bit more open and straggly. They’re great for owners too as they’re tough. Many of these are theoretically poisonous due to the irritant oils they contain but in practice cats find them too unpleasant to nibble.

  • Callistemon (bottle brush)
  • Correa*
  • Lilly pilly (Syzygiums come in a wide variety of sizes so don’t get a tree by mistake)*
  • Westringia fruticosa (‘Native rosemary’)*

I hope these lists give you enough to go on. I haven’t mentioned trees, but with the notable exceptions of oleander and white cedar, poisonings are even rarer. As always, I’d appreciate your comments and questions.

You can also find a long list of the plants that aren’t recommended at our similar page on safe & toxic plants for dogs.

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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These articles are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!

Andrew

3 Replies to “Designing A Cat Friendly Australian Garden”

  1. Hi,
    I’m building a house and I want to enclose the backyard so my cats can go outside safely… however, my cats have pica and plants are one of the main things they target (they will start eating any plant they can get their paws on). So, I want to make sure any plants in the garden won’t be toxic to them. One of them is a vomiter too… if she eats too much cat grass she will vomit… so I’m a bit worried about allowing her access to even cat-safe plants outside, because she doesn’t seem to moderate herself (but maybe she will if given unrestricted access?). Anyway, would you have any suggestions for which plants would be the safest for my pica cats? Thanks!

    1. Hi Kelly. True pica is very rare (I have not seen one in my career), so the odds of two cats being affected in one house are minuscule. They sound quite normal to me – most cats will make a mess of any foliage inside the house, probably because there isn’t much choice. Once they have access to larger amounts of greenery they usually settle down and just nibble on it. However, if you’re worried, avoid plants with long strappy leaves or grasses with runners like buffalo, couch and kikuyu. If they truly have pica, there may be no such thing as a safe plant though.

      1. Both my cats do have pica due to being kept in a guinea pig hutch when they were kittens… they didn’t get to do all the normal kitten things like chewing to work out what is good to eat and what’s not. Plus boredom and chewing on what ever was in the guinea pig hutch was prob one of the few things they had to keep themselves occupied. So it’s prob not a genetic cause but a psychological behavior learnt due to mistreatment as kittens (not by me)… one of the 2 is definitely worse than the other (electrocuted herself recently by chewing through my wifi cable) but they both target plants as one of the main things. A neighbor dropped off a passion fruit vine for me to give to my dad. I put it down for a about a minute and when I came back both cats were chewing on the leaves. Then I had to google if passionfruit vine is poisonous to cats… half the info said it’s not and half said it breaks down to cyanide in the body… maybe depending on which variety, but I had no idea, so I spent a stressful night watching to make sure they were ok (they were). So this is why I want to be careful about what I plant. Thanks for the extra advice.

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