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For many of us, pets are loved and cherished members of our family. We’re not in a minority – according to the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association the UK now has 17 million pet-owning households, the majority of those home to dogs and cats.
A private garden is a blessing when it comes to pet parenting, providing opportunities for exercise, play, relaxation and refreshment. But how do we design our outdoor spaces to be safe, comfortable and stimulating for pets without compromising our own needs and desires? The answer very much depends on the animal, their age, level of training and temperament, but it certainly can be done. Here are our top tips and ideas for creating a pet-friendly garden.
Whatever type of pet you have, your top priority is keeping them safe from harm. To that end, securing the boundaries of your garden will be your first concern. If you’ve not cared for a pet before, or have recently moved to a new home, you will quickly spot where the potential escape routes are. Solid boundaries such as walls and fences are ideal as they’re relatively impenetrable. Gates must fasten securely and be designed to close firmly behind you. Hedges will need careful inspection to make sure there are no gaps that fearless pets might squeeze through. It might be possible to block holes temporarily with chicken wire or hazel hurdles, or you may want to plant densely in front of them. Dogs, rabbits, tortoises and lizards will gleefully dig and burrow, so be sure to protect your boundaries below as well as above ground.
It’s wise to know what’s growing in your garden as many plants can be toxic if eaten by animals. You shouldn’t lose sleep over this as there are comprehensive lists of potentially harmful plants that can be checked online, a handful of which are referenced at the end of this article. If you’re unsure of what’s growing in your garden, ask your garden designer, a knowledgeable friend or use a plant identification app to be on the safe side. Some of the plants that should be avoided are autumn crocus, lilies, azaleas, rhododendrons, cotoneaster, daffodil, horse chestnut, oak, laburnum and yew, most of which are harmful if eaten by humans too. Fortunately, there are thousands of plants that are perfectly harmless to pets so your hopes of a beautiful, flower-filled garden need not be dashed.
As well as poisonous plants, pet-friendly gardens should be completely free from insecticides, artificial fertilisers and chemical pest controls such as slug pellets. Consider what you use as mulch too, as products containing cocoa are toxic to dogs.
Be alert to other hazards, including ponds, sharp edges and dramatic changes in level. Ensure pets are safe from injury, especially if they are young, small, inquisitive, boisterous, partially sighted or blind. What might be deemed a hazard may change over time or with familiarity, so, again, low willow, hazel or chestnut hurdles could be just the job for temporary protection.
When pets need a spot of casual exercise or fresh air, gardens often provide the most convenient solution. With boundaries secured and hazards neutralised, you’ll want them to grow familiar with the space. Cats and dogs enjoy a variety of surface textures but may dig in lawns and borders. Digging is natural behaviour and something they can’t help wanting to do. The Dogs Trust recommends creating a dog-only sandpit and teaching your dog to dig in this area by scattering or burying treats for them to forage. You can also half-bury some of their outdoor toys for them to dig out. Cats, however, are likely to view the same feature as a very grand litter tray, which brings us neatly on to the next subject!
It’s entirely likely that your beloved pet may occasionally or routinely use the garden as a toilet. It’s not something we like to dwell on but it needs to be considered, especially if a garden is shared with small children. Cats and dogs can be trained to ‘go’ in a specific area which you may have to write off in terms of looks but can be easily contained and kept clean. Pets with a vegetarian diet create less harmful waste that can be safely added to a compost heap. It’s critical that any food crops you’re cultivating are safely segregated so that they’re safe to eat. In beds and borders use low hurdles or, alternatively, consider building raised beds from treated timber: your dog may cock his leg on these but it won’t harm your precious harvest.
If you enjoy feeding birds and hedgehogs or watching the antics of squirrels and foxes, you might also want to create a separate area so that they can continue visiting your garden without driving your cat or dog wild with excitement.
Hard, smooth surfaces are easy to clean and handy when a dirty dog needs to be hosed down after a muddy walk. However, too much paving or concrete can make a garden hot and uncomfortable for pets and their owners. Think about where to site an outdoor tap and if you’re feeling adventurous you might even consider an outdoor shower. Avoid gravel in a pet-friendly garden as it invites digging and is hard to keep clean – mischievous puppies may also have a go at eating it!
The practicalities dealt with, it’s now time to make your pet feel at home. Most pets will thank you for an area of lawn providing space to run, roam, play or graze. It’s cool in summer, soft on the feet and can be hosed down quickly and easily if needed. Although artificial grass is perfectly safe for pets it can become very hot in summer and provides nothing for rabbits, guinea pigs and tortoises to nibble on.
Providing a source of cool shade is important, especially during the summer months. It’s rare that a garden won’t have a naturally shaded spot, but consider introducing a hard surface where you can set their bed or hutch outside. Always make sure there’s access to a source of fresh clean water. Dogs and cats may enjoy a slightly elevated vantage point so that they can keep a careful eye on their territory between naps.
Finally, it’s time to have some fun. If you’ve got plenty of room, it’s a good idea to set aside space purely for pets to play and explore. Make it clear where this is by putting their toys there and taking time to engage with them. Tunnels, hurdles, scratching posts, ramps and dens provide further opportunities for fun and stimulation, while shallow water features might also be enjoyed under careful supervision.
Having taken care of the toxic plants, there are plenty that animals love to sniff and eat too. Cats, of course, go crazy for catmint (Nepeta mussinii) and catnip (Nepeta cataria). Dogs also love scented plants, especially lavender, rosemary, sage, lemon balm, fennel and Moroccan mint. (English pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) should be avoided as it can be toxic.) Dogs and cats enjoy chewing on grass: wheatgrass is fast to grow, packed full of nutrients and has been shown to aid digestion and boost energy levels. Pansies, nasturtiums and calendulas are safe for many pets to eat in small amounts but be mindful that the plants may get trampled in the process. In small quantities, fruit makes a delicious occasional treat for pets. A pot of alpine strawberries, a row of raspberry canes or a dwarf apple tree will provide ample snacks for all.
In conclusion, although pets need a little consideration when designing a garden, their needs are not so different from our own and certainly not incompatible. As with any family space, be prepared to make a few compromises and adapt as your pets mature or new ones come on the scene. The most important thing is to create a garden that you can share and enjoy with your animals rather than constantly worrying about what mischief they might make.