Students often ask me how they can help make their garden more stimulating and user friendly for their pet. Irrespective of the size of your garden, or the species of pet you prefer, you can design elements in your garden to accommodate and stimulate your pet. You can even make separate areas within your garden so that there is an area for adults, an area for children as well as an area for your pet.
For example, all animals can benefit from shade plants. Dogs and cats enjoy shade in summer. It also provides protection from predators. If you have both a cat and a dog, the cat can move into the tree if it has had enough of the dogs’ attentions. (this providing you don’t have a terrier that can scurry up a tree just as fast as the cat!) Birds also enjoy a tree with good foliage, not just for sanctuary, but also for roosting. Insects and reptiles such as lizards and chameleons are attracted by certain types of trees, so if you’re fond of reptiles, select a suitable indigenous plant.
Many trees also provide a necessary food source of animals. Parrots love the foliage from rhus trees, cats greatly enjoy a good roll in catnip, and willow trees provide a natural source of paracetamol. My willow tree has been almost ring-barked by the dogs. Presumably they were suffering from a bad headache at the time. On observation, it appeared that two of the dogs were chewing at a specific part of the trunk. They ate away at it for about two months, and none of the dogs have ever paid any interest to it since.
Scented plants also provide wonderful environmental enrichment for pets. Plants such as Rosemary, Lavender and Rue can give your pet endless pleasure. I’ve watched dogs pushing themselves through salvia plants over and over again. Initially I thought they were scratching their backs, but on closer observation, I believe they were also trying to impregnate their fur with the smell of the plant. Maybe this helped warding off flies and other pesky insects? Whatever, it was obviously an enjoyable pastime for the dog.
The various sounds made by plants are also stimulating. Some grasses make a wonderful rustling sound (cats seem to particularly enjoy this). Most animals enjoy the feeling of pushing through a shrub or long grass. If you keep and area for just indigenous grass, you’ll be amazed at the amount of wildlife that makes use of it. Little shrews will have tunnels running through it, wild birds will flock down to feed off the seeds. Small insects such as ladybirds will start to appear.
There are also plants for playing with. Cats enjoy grasses such as the fishermans’ grass, which they can pat with their paws. A couple of old logs strategically placed can afford rewarding scratching posts for cats, or a pleasant looking natural jump for dogs. Drooping foliage will be appreciated by e.g. chickens and guinea pigs.
There are some other general things to note irrespective of what pet you have. Contrary to popular belief, dogs don’t necessarily need a lot of space to exercise in. As long as they are adequately stimulated by their surroundings, and taken off the property for ever-rewarding sniffs, you can keep an active dog in a relatively small area.
It is often a good idea to divide the garden up into separate distinct areas, this so that everyone gets a place to play in. Children could have a jungle gym, adults a braai area, and animals a shallow splash pool or sand pit. Sand pits can be a great source of entertainment for dogs, especially those that like digging. Get a small plastic shell (kiddies stores sell them – they often look like a scallop sea shell), fill the shell with sand and bury some interesting articles – a ball, cow heel, rawhide chew, etc. The dogs learn that it is acceptable and rewarding to dig in that area, and will tend to leave the rest of the garden unexcavated.
All gardens should be checked for safety. A good security fence is essential, with electric strands being closer together should you wish to contain your cats. Perimeter fences should regularly be checked for holes or tunnels under them. Dogs (and some cats) love fence fighting with their neighbours – if your fence is not secure, you could land yourself with some hefty veterinary bills, not to mention an irate visit from your next door neighbour.
It is important that dogs are able to see out of their property, whether through the driveway gate, or a fence. If your property is surrounded by a solid brick or precast wall, it is often a good idea to make a small eye hole at the dogs’ eye height for him to look out. By allowing your pet to see what’s going on in the outside world, he should become more exposed to cars, pedestrians and other passers-by. This prevents fear on seeing a previously unknown subject for the first time. Imagine how frustrating it must be to be able to smell and hear the outside world, but to never be able to see it.
Ensure that pets do not have access to refuse bins and that the driveway is clear so that pets don’t get bumped or run in to when you leave home or arrive back. It is also a good idea to have a specific area for your cat or dog to use for soiling. It is much easier to clean up after your pet if it also defecates in the same area. Not a huge issue to teach, and a much more hygienic solution, especially if you have children.
Be aware that some plants are toxic to animals and pets, Oleander being a prime example. Thorny plants can tear the flesh of a running dog, or jab it in the eye. Thorns and burrs can get stuck or impale themselves between dogs toes or in their pads. Fruits like that avocado are toxic to parrots and dogs. Certain types of algae and fungi can also cause severe gastro-intestinal problems in animals, and sometimes lead to death.
Some folk are not able or not interested in owning a cat or a dog. If you have a small water feature, you can derive hours of pleasure watching fish swim around. I have a friend who has a pond just to observe the indigenous frogs that use it. The species seem to vary according to the seasons, but there is always some sort of frog or toad nearby the water. Another friend of mine rescued a border collie that was 8 years old. This poor girl must have led quite a stressful life, and spent a large portion of her day barking at all and sundry. On getting a small windfall, Laura decided to re-vamp her garden, and included in her plans a water feature, complete with fountain and fish. This proved to be an instant success with the dog, which now spends hours running from side to side of the pond trying to herd the fish from under the lily pads!! So intent is Pippa on getting the fish to “obey” her, that she completely forgets to bark. An all-round success story.
Fresh water should always be available. Sometimes it is better to elevate this so that your dog doesn’t use it to wash his feet in, or as a container for his dirty toys. Activity balls and items hung from trees also present problem solving puzzles for active dogs, cats and birds. I once had a problem with bored chickens that started to peck at each others’ eggs, depriving us of our breakfast. A simple solution was to hang some leafy branches across the entrance to their laying boxes, so that the birds had to push through a screen to get into the box. This was stimulating to them, and also prevented the chickens on the outside from seeing the eggs as easily. I also hung a rag on a string further down their enclosure, so that they could peck on that and (hopefully) alleviate the desire to destroy the newly laid eggs. It worked, and within days we were back to our full quota of eggs.
Remember to remove your dogs food about 10 minutes after offering it too them. Food left around all day encourages rats and other scavengers, which often carry disease which they could pass on to your pets. Of course food left exposed to the elements all day could also become rancid and give rise to digestive problems.
Allowing your dog to scavenge is also a good solution for bored pets. Dogs are natural scavengers, and generally enjoy using their noses. Perhaps you could toss their kibble on the grass occasionally and leave them to make use of their wonderful sense of smell to find their breakfast.
Bird feeders are also tremendously rewarding for both birds and cats. Hang them where the cats can’t get to them, and fill them with an assortment of seed and fruit. The birds will enjoy the free meal, and the cats will sit there for hours with their tails twitching, dreaming of a feathered feast.
Hopefully you will now have many new ideas on how to better enjoy your garden with your pet. Wishing you a peaceful yet stimulating time together.