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Not here, kitty, kitty

Practical solutions can keep free-roaming cats out of your yard—and out of eyesight of indoor pets

All Animals magazine, July/August 2017

by Danielle Bays

A cat lounges outdoors. Photo by Mint Images Limited/Alamy Stock Photo.

Most of the time, Tux is a good-natured, well-behaved cat, content with his indoor- only lifestyle. But whenever he looks out a window and spies a strange cat in his yard, a different side emerges. He races in circles, yowling his displeasure. He mangles window blinds and sometimes attacks his feline sibling, Tango.

Karen Ramsey adopted Tux and Tango as kittens four years ago from a local shelter, and for a while, neither cat seemed overly upset by the sight of unfamiliar felines wandering into the backyard of her row house in Washington, D.C. But last summer, Tux’s reaction to feline trespassers escalated from mild annoyance to full-on frenzy. Around the same time, some of the outdoor cats began spraying on Ramsey’s front porch and using her vegetable garden as a litter box.

Ramsey reached the end of her rope. She didn’t want anything bad to happen to the outdoor cats, and she appreciated their role in combating her neighborhood’s endemic rodent problem, but her overriding thought was “they have to go away.”

It’s a common reaction, says Katie Lisnik, HSUS director of cat protection and policy. But removing cats is seldom a longterm solution as more cats move into the area to take advantage of handouts from caretakers and other food sources.

If community cats are aggravating you or your pets, you should first identify who is caring for the cats and connect them with local trap-neuter-return (TNR) resources, says Lisnik. Sterilization is the most important step for mitigating feline nuisance behaviors and reducing the number of cats over time. And if you need a more immediate fix to your problems, check out these high-and low-tech strategies for communicating the “no trespassing” message to cats.

Trigger warnings

Laurel Cats, a Maryland-based TNR organization, has successfully used motion-activated CatStop devices to keep the peace between feral cats and their human neighbors, says president Helen Woods. CatStops and similar products emit a burst of ultrasonic sound (inaudible to humans) that startles cats who pass into the device’s range. A single device will deter cats from doorways to prevent territorial spraying or aggression between indoor and outdoor cats, but two or three may be needed to keep cats away from flower beds and smaller yards.

Cats can become habituated or learn to maneuver around the device’s trigger, so changing the location or adding other deterrents can improve your chances of success. (If you have dogs, you’ll need to take them into consideration when positioning the devices, as they may also be bothered by the sound.) Focus on points of entry to the off-limits area, whether it’s the yard, garden or hood of a car.

  • Motion-activated sprinklers will scare away some outdoor cats. Photo by Danielle Bays/The HSUS.

For larger yards, many TNR groups report success using motion-activated sprinklers like the Contech ScareCrow or Havahart Spray Away. Some devices require access to a water source while others use a reservoir, and you can’t use these in cold weather. But year-round use isn’t necessary— it typically takes only a few months before the cats get the message. Afterward, you can remove the device, and the cats will continue to avoid the area.

Down to earth

You can make gardens less appealing to cats by placing small-gauge chicken wire just under the soil or using other deterrents that cats find uncomfortable to walk on. Try sharp-edged mulch, a plastic carpet runner with the knobby side up or products like the Cat Scat Mat.

Scent repellents are another option: Gardeners recommend planting a buffer of aromatic plants that cats find offensive, such as the herbs rosemary and rue or the “scaredy cat plant” (make sure any plants aren’t invasive in your area, or keep them in pots). Many TNR practitioners swear by sprinkling coffee grounds or cayenne pepper to deter cats from small areas. (Note that while products containing predator urine are advertised as effective in keeping cats away, the key ingredient is likely to be obtained by inhumane means.)

Another way to prevent cats from digging in gardens is to add more plants and reduce the amount of exposed soil, says Nancy Lawson, All Animals contributor and author of the book The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife. By covering dirt with leaves, sticks, old plant stalks and other natural materials, you will not only make it less attractive to cats, but also improve habitat for bumblebees and other ground-nesting insects and help fertilize the soil for your plants, Lawson says.

No free meals

To prevent cats from stalking your bird feeders, ultrasonic devices like the CatStop can be an effective deterrent (the sound doesn’t bother birds). Moving the feeder to a location that makes it harder for cats to prey on the birds, such as away from shrubs, tall grass and other cover, is another simple step to foil cats on the hunt. You can discourage cats from climbing pole-mounted feeders or preying on ground-feeding birds by adding circular fencing that’s at least 2 feet high and 4 feet in diameter directly below the feeder.

An alternative solution is to replace feeders with bird-friendly native plants—both berry-producing bushes that they need in the fall and the host plants that attract the caterpillars that baby birds need, says Lawson.

An outdoor cat samples the water from an outdoor fountain. Photo by Juniors Bildarchiv GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo.

Home base improvements

Are there aspects of your property that are particularly appealing to cats? You can work with the cats’ caretakers to replicate those features in the yards where cats are welcome. This might entail providing a perch in a sunny spot, a place to get out of the rain or to find shade, or a comfortable lawn chair with a cushion.

Plant catnip as well as its showier cousin, catmint, to lure the cats to the welcome zones, and set up an outdoor litter box (with a mound of sand, dirt or soft-particle mulch). Cats also enjoy water fountains and large flower pots where they can lie down.

Mix and match

Many times, a relatively simple intervention will resolve your cat-related frustrations, says Lisnik. Other cases will require a combination of solutions. If all else fails, you may need to look at more expensive options, such as cat-proof fencing. Over the past year, Ramsey has learned that when it comes to deterring cats, you have to be persistent “and try as many different options as will work.” She first installed a CatStop on her front porch, chicken wire around her raised vegetable garden and mats with plastic nubs inside her garden. She talked with the cats’ caretakers and enlisted neighbors to help trap the cats for sterilization. Those steps alleviated many of her problems, but didn’t stop cats from loitering by her backyard gate, so she recently added a motion-activated sprinkler there.

Tux seems much calmer now, she reports. “He’s just happier when we can find ways for the other cats to not come around and get him riled up.”


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