Shoo! Keep Cats Out of Your Garden Humanely

Cats are perhaps the most independent pets. Most of us don't know where our cats are for the majority of the time and only find them when we go to sit in our favorite seat—which said cat has inevitably claimed. But as any keen (cat-owning) gardener will tell you, that independence can come at a cost: your flowerbeds, your veg patch and any other carefully maintained parts of your yard.

How do you stop cats from wandering among your prized plants? For the green-fingered out there, Newsweek chatted to a couple of cat experts about the best ways to keep cats out of your garden humanely.

A cat in a garden.
A fluffy cat is caught on the move in someone's back yard. Nils Jacobi/Nils Jacobi/Getty

An Insight Into Cat Behavior

Dr. Jo Lewis, vet and author of What's My Cat Thinking?, told Newsweek that domesticated house cats still have some of the instincts of their genetically similar ancestors: African wildcats.

They're "driven by hunting, by going out in the sunshine, by exploring their territory," according to Lewis. They're also territorial, which means they'll aim to "protect" their area by marking it with urine—all of which is to say: it's totally normal for cats to be wandering around in gardens.

"They'd normally have to catch 10-20 small prey a day, so they spend whole days walking around foraging in the hedges. It's very normal for cats to be in people's gardens," Lewis said. "That's the most important thing to get across."

What do you do if you want to deter a cat from traipsing through your yard? Here are some tips.

A cat sniffs leaves.
A shorthair cat sniffs some leaves while exploring a garden. Nils Jacobi/Nils Jacobi/Getty

What To Do When Cats Come Into Your Garden

The aim here, according to Lewis, is to get the cat in question to develop a specific thought-process: this isn't the sort of place where I want to hang around. She believes the first step should be talking to the cat's owner.

"It sounds stupid, but talk to your neighbor," she said. "If it's one particular cat and it's suddenly started doing it, there might be a reason behind why they are being driven into the garden, or something that's attracting them."

The cat's hormones might be in flux, it may need neutering or have an illness that's driving up its appetite and it's resorting to looking for food elsewhere. If that's the case, it may simply be a case of letting your neighbor know the cat's behavior has changed, so they can address the root cause.

It's also possible you may be attracting the cat into your garden without realizing it, according to Lewis. She advises against sending "mixed messages that might include stroking or feeding or calling them in high-pitched voices."

Author and cat expert Celia Haddon told Newsweek that anyone who thinks a stray cat is entering their garden should contact an organization that may be able to help.

"If you are visited regularly by a particularly scruffy thin-looking cat, talk to your local cat rescue and see if you can get him rehomed or relocated by them," she said.

A cat and a sprinkler
A cat starts a fight with a lawn sprinkler water, while making its way across a lawn. Nils Jacobi/Nils Jacobi/Getty

How To Deter Cats (Humanely)

Smells

Cat deterrents can be categorized by which of the cat's senses they stimulate. First, smell.

"If you're talking about unpleasant smells, there's citrus-based things like citronella," Lewis said. "A lot of the granules and sprays that you get from DIY places are usually based on that, because cats don't like citrus-smelling stuff."

Most garden centers or hardware stores sell oils and candles scented with citronella. Britain's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) suggests scattering orange or lemon peel. Cats also don't like the smell of strong alcohols, such as surgical spirit, according to Lewis. There are even products that purport to release the scent of big cat feces.

"The logic there is that you can smell a big cat's urine, therefore you're less likely to stick around," Lewis said, though she added that she's seen cats exhibit mixed responses to these smells.

She added that certain plants may actually be attracting cats into your garden. These include the likes of catnip and valerian.

Sound

Another option is a device that emits an ultrasonic sound, which is inaudible to humans but unpleasant for cats. There are various products available and some may work better than others.

Lewis pointed out, however, that these devices might cause more disruption than people realize. "We can't hear it, so is it emitting a high-pitched sound all the time?" She said. "In which case, it's probably really annoying other wildlife or the dog next door—or your own dog."

Sight

According to the RSPB, there's an old gamekeeper's trick you can use to keep cats at bay: place half-full plastic bottles at the borders of your garden. The idea is that the reflecting light scares cats away. A similar effect can be achieved by tying unwanted CDs on twine across flower beds or between trees.

If that fails, there are other visual deterrents, according to Haddon.

"Get a dog. You don't have to train it to chase cats—that would be cruel and would get you into trouble with your neighbor. Its mere presence will help," she said. "Get your own cat—large and male. Though of course, he will use your garden instead of them."

Touch

If none of the above works, you might need to pull out some tools. Obstacles such as fences tend to work very well, Haddon said.

"If they are neighboring cats, cut back tree branches so that they cannot use them to get into your garden," she added. "If you have a wall, put ordinary scrunched-up wire netting over the wall so the cat will not be comfortable sitting there."

Haddon also recommends the strategic placing of cloches or bending wire netting into a cloche shape to guard specific flowerbeds or veg patches. You can also lay down the slating often used in scree gardens or large pebbles, which may deter a cat from digging.

"Large beach pebbles look best and are useful for pots," she said. "Bark is not any good: they simply dig through it."

When it comes to fencing, the RSPB suggests angling your fence so it leans in the direction from which the cat usually enters. You can also install "flimsy plastic roll-up fencing" on top of your regular fence, or a taut wire roughly four inches above the fence. Both methods make it more difficult for a cat to balance on top.

Other tips include getting a spiked tree collar to stop cats from climbing up your trees, and putting downward-opening cones below items like bird tables.

If you don't want more things in your garden, there are plants that can help too, according to Haddon. She recommends planting prickly shrubs or spiky hedging (such as holly or berberis), which won't hurt the cats, but will likely dissuade them from coming back.

Lewis said you should target the route that the cat typically takes. "It might be that the cat comes in via a specific route, like a specific side of the fence," she said. "You may not have to do the whole fence, just whatever route the cat takes through your garden."

If you're at your wits end, it may be time for the big guns. The RSPB suggests using a water gun or bucket of water to keep cats away. You can also try motion-activated sprinklers, Lewis added.

A cat hunts among ferns.
A ginger cat hunts and explores among a forest of green ferns. Christopher Freeman/Christopher Freeman/Getty

'Cats Are Cats'

Don't assume any of this will be easy or quick. Every cat is different and will react differently to any of the options you try, said Lewis.

"It is not likely to be a simple fix because, ultimately, it's going to depend on that individual cat and the reason that they're visiting your place," she said. "You could always try and convince your neighbor to start feeding them in their garden so they don't bother to come over to yours.

"Cats are cats and if they decide your garden's got the best birds or it's got the nice sunny spot away from the most dogs, that's always gonna drive them to come back."