Dogs, cats, people, flowers and lawns…all harmoniously flourishing in one back yard? With proper planning, an animal-friendly setting is not only possible, but attractive and enjoyable too.
Sharing your home with an animal companion often means sharing your back yard with him too. Problem is, the average back yard isn’t really designed with dogs or cats in mind. From toxic plants and predatory wildlife to inadequate fencing leading to unwanted escapes, most yards present a variety of hazards. On the other side of the coin, dogs can wreak havoc on lovingly-tended lawns and gardens with their urine spots and digging habits.
These problems can fade into insignificance if you plan your yard to safely and harmoniously incorporate your dog or cat. Here are four main features to pay attention to.
1. Fencing factors
A good fence is not just for keeping your animal safely in your yard. It also helps keep strays and predators out.
• For extra protection, install a shield of wire mesh by digging a small trench along the fence. Bury the mesh 6” deep and secure it to the fence 2’ up. A mesh with 1” holes will deter snakes and toxic toads from entering your yard, while keeping digging dogs inside.
• A wooden privacy fence can cut down on barking by blocking your dog’s view and giving him less to bark at.
• Coyotes are an increasing threat to cats and small dogs, even in cities. A roller added to the top of the fence will prevent them from getting a foothold when jumping. It will also prevent cats from climbing out.
• Mitch and Jen Frankenberg of The Paw House B&B in Vermont have created a safe, comfortable and sustainable landscape for visiting dogs and their people – and that includes fencing. They use green coated wire fencing to blend with the scenery. Freezing and thawing can push fence posts up and out of the ground, so wooden anchor posts are buried 4’ deep and frequently checked to make sure they’re secure.
• Consider adding canvas “sails” as an awning to prevent owls or hawks from seeing your small dog or cat. Grommeted canvas adds visual interest and reduces exposure to direct sunlight.
• “Cats pull themselves up with their front feet, push up with their back legs,” says feline expert Dusty Rainboldt. “Cat fencing tilts inward, making it impossible for them to climb out.” Several companies make cat fencing designed to be installed along the top of an existing fence. Trees near the fence can aid and abet escaping cats so put cat fencing around the tree too.
2. Grass and plants
Grass takes a beating from dogs that run the fence line or view the whole yard as a potty area. The good news is that your yard can be free of dead or trampled grass.
• Mitch Kalamian, owner of Solena Landscape in California, uses grasses like Bermuda, St. Augustine or zoysia. They grow by sending out runners, so bare spots fill themselves in. • Artificial turf along the fence line can provide a welcome alternative to a worn, dusty or muddy path. • Mitch uses bark or decomposed granite around shrubs or trees – never cocoa mulch, which is toxic to dogs if ingested.
• “Space night lighting evenly so there are no dark spots,” adds Mitch. “It helps keep deer and coyotes away.” Nowadays, you can get solar-powered yard and garden lights.
• Choose trees and shrubs for shade and color, and flowers to attract bees and butterflies – but keep your dog and cat in mind. “Most plants can be irritants to grazing dogs but some, such as sago palm, foxglove and oleander, can be deadly,” says Melanie Monteiro, author of The Safe Dog Handbook. “Examine your garden against the ASPCA’s toxic plant list [aspca.org/pet-care/ poison-control] and when in doubt, take clippings to the nursery for identification.” Even a common plant like the chrysanthemum can be harmful if swallowed.
3. Designated potty area
“A designated potty area is key to a healthy back yard,” says Lisa Peterson, spokesperson for the American Kennel Club. Matt Boswell of Pet Butler agrees. His company supplies a Piddle Post for male dogs and arranges for pooper-scoopers to police the yards of families whose schedules or health issues prevent regular cleanup. “Dog poop is not a fertilizer,” says Matt. “Fecal chloroform kills grass.”
A designated potty area made from a porous, synthetic lawn material will let urine drain into the soil while making poop-scooping easier. For odor control, hose the turf as needed, or spray it with an organic enzyme cleaner designed for use with dogs.
Want something more natural? Use cedar chips for the potty area. The cedar smell will reduce urine odors.
With time and patience, you can train your dog to urinate and defecate in this one area of the yard.
4. Fun activities for all
A dog’s boredom can destroy a yard. “Giving your dog interesting things to do prevents problems,” says Cheryl Smith, author of Dog Friendly Gardens, Garden Friendly Dogs. “Know your dog. Guard dogs run the fence, terriers dig, herders circle.”
Cheryl designed the yard for Legacy Canine Behavior and Training in Washington State. Her design includes an agility course, tunnels, and a digging pit where treasure hunts are held. The agility course sits on artificial turf so there’s no need to move the equipment when mowing. Unused sewer pipes covered with soil and plants form the tunnels. Decking lumber was used to build a frame for the digging pit, which was then filled with sand, dirt, buried treats and toys. Plants are fertilized with bone meal. To add a variety of textures, rolled gravel was used for pathways. For dogs who love to herd, try a soccer ball and net.
Keeping cats safe and in the back yard requires a little ingenuity. Susan Gottleib found her four cats weren’t satisfied with her screened porch, so she got creative. Now a half-mile-long cat run winds through her native plant garden, up over the roof, and along the fence. The cats can enter the run from different areas of the house – an enclosed and roofed courtyard, a former walk-in closet, a powder room and the screened porch.
The roof has an added feature – a pen with scratching posts and cat furniture. The base of the run is made from redwood planking. Green coated wire fencing is arched 4’ high over the plank, making a small tunnel. “My mission is to protect both wildlife and the cats,” says Susan. Large openings in the fencing gave the cats too much access to birds and lizards, so it has since been replaced with a smaller mesh. The cats are able to come and go, sun themselves or just get some fresh air.
You can achieve a similar effect by building a wire cage outside your kitchen window. With shelves for relaxing, posts for scratching and a view for watching inside and out, your cats will be perfectly content.
Creating an animal-friendly landscape is a lesson in innovative thinking. Including safety, attractiveness, convenience and pleasure in your plans ensures a result that’s fun and relaxing for both of you.