Recently I was scrolling through TikTok and swiped onto a video about cat-proofing houseplants. As someone with two kitties, I know the struggle of keeping a plant-and-cat household. Every succulent or flower I bring home is immediately marred by little teeth marks until it eventually dies. So I jumped at the chance to learn a method simple enough to fit within a 60-second instructional.
In the video, the TikToker rubs the plant leaves and stems with lemon juice and sprinkles cayenne pepper on the soil. Voila — instant cat deterrent, and with items I already had in my kitchen.
I’ve tried for years to stop my cats from munching on the plants I bring home, so this seemed a little too easy. Does the method actually work? And, more importantly, is it safe for my fur children?
We spoke with veterinarians, plant experts, and influencers to learn why these methods might not be the best options, along with other tips for keeping your cats and plants living harmoniously together.
1. Lemon Can Work, But Pepper Should Be Avoided
Using cayenne pepper is not recommended. Susan Krebsbach, a veterinarian specializing in animal behavior with Preventative Vet, said the spice can lead to eye irritation, and, if it gets on a cat’s paws, it can cause excessive licking. This can lead to skin sores, oral discomfort, and even stomach upsets.
Do not add cayenne pepper to your plants. It can cause several health issues for cats.
Alison Meindl, an assistant professor at Colorado State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital, explains that lemon juice, however, is a safe option to try. “While lemon oil or the concentrated peel can be toxic to cats at high levels, the actual fruit is not toxic and should be a deterrent for most cats,” she said.
How to Introduce Citrus Fruits Safely
“Because cats lack sweet taste receptors, they usually will avoid ingesting fruit, in particular citrus fruits,” explains Krebsbach. “However, the oils and compounds in citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, and limes can cause digestive irritation, resulting in vomiting or diarrhea. Therefore, it is best to use the juice of a lemon, lime or orange diluted with some water and then sprayed on the leaves of the plant.”
Keep in mind, however, that every cat is different. Some might hate the lemon while others might not seem to notice it at all.
Artist Vionna Wai lives in a home with two cats, Mi and Ding, and more than 100 plants. She says using plant deterrents such as lemon, mint, and vinegar helped keep the kitties away from her greens. (Get a tour of Wai's apartment, plants, and her two cats in her episode of In the Weeds With Plant People.)
But Leslie MacDonald, founder and owner of Plant and Curio, tried lemon to keep her kitten, Moira, away from her plants and had no luck.
2. Hang ’Em Up
An easy way to keep your cats out of your plants is to make sure they can’t access them. Both Wai and MacDonald use macrame plant holders and shelves to mount their smaller plants up and out of reach from little paws.
If you have space, designate a “plant room” where your kitty isn’t allowed. This is what MacDonald did when her older cat was a kitten.
Another alternative is to transform a cabinet with glass doors into your own little DIY greenhouse or use terrariums. The plants will still be shown off, but stay protected.
3. Wrap the Pot in Tinfoil
Sure, it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing look, but MacDonald found that’s what kept her new kitten from using the houseplants as a litter box.
“Tinfoil worked with her perfectly,” Macdonald says. “She hates the tin foil so much. She was going into all the plants and trying to urinate in them, so I just covered the edges of all the pots in foil. It worked immediately.”
4. Cover the Soil
How to cat-proof plants is a question customers at City Floral Garden Center ask a lot. One of the methods Marketing Director Matthew Osier recommends, and that the business uses with their office’s resident cat, is covering the soil of larger plants with pinecones, rocks, or bamboo spikes.
“Sometimes cats want to use [houseplants] as a litter box,” Osier says. “So using something that works with the decor of the houseplant but will also prevent them from squatting or doing whatever they do to get into the plant …is something we try to steer people to.”
5. Tempt Kitty With Something Else to Chew On
Another technique that might work well is diverting the cat with a plant they can chew on, like catnip or cat grass. “Sometimes they just want to nibble on something, so when we have cat grass around they’re not as likely to just bite your other, prettier houseplants,” Wai says.
6. Fill Your Space With Non-Toxic Plants
Cats will be cats, and they might not ever leave your plants in peace. If you do have a plant-and-cat household, Osier and Wai both say it’s important to understand which plants are toxic and which are non-toxic to your felines and to consciously buy cat-friendly plants.
MacDonald says, at the end of the day you need to accept that there might be some collateral damage when you mix plants and animals.
“When I got a kitten I knew there’s a possibility that there might be some plant damage or even plant loss,” she says. “So I didn’t make a huge deal out of it. Some things are going to happen along the way when you have plants and animals.”