Sensory Gardens have become quite popular in overseas pet shelters as a way to help de-stress the dogs in their care and the idea is now starting to spark interest here in Australia. Local business Balancing Act Adelaide, a consulting firm that specialises in Pet Friendly urban planning has recently announced a new project looking at dog friendly streetscapes & a sensory garden for dogs in a shelter environment.

Most gardens have a visual appeal and are great for humans, but a sensory garden is one designed to appeal to the other senses. By design and plant choice we can create a garden that stimulates not only visually, but also via smell, touch, taste and sound. The garden can appeal to all species, human, dog, cat, rabbit, birds and the best news is that you can create something at home and it doesn’t have to be on a grand scale.

Why would we want to create a sensory garden for our pets I hear you ask?  Well it has been proven that sensory gardens can provide stress release for all species, including our pets. As well as tantalising all of their senses, sensory gardens encourage dogs to interact with their surroundings and provide physical and mental challenges. Dogs particularly have an amazing nose that is meant for sniffing; they possess up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to about six million in ours. And the part of a dog’s brain that is devoted to analysing smells is, proportionally speaking, 40 times greater than ours.

Likewise, the domestic cat’s sense of smell is about fourteen times stronger than human’s. Cats have twice as many receptors in the olfactory epithelium (i.e. smell-sensitive cells in their noses) than people do, which means cats have a more acute sense of smell than humans. Cats also have a scent organ in the roof of their mouths called the vomeronasal (or Jacobson’s) organ. When a cat wrinkles its muzzle, lowers its chin, and lets its tongue hang a bit, it is opening the passage to the vomeronasal. This is called gaping, “sneering”, “snake mouth”, or “flehming”. Gaping is the equivalent of the Flehmen response in other animals, such as dogs, horses and big cats.

All of this means that creating a garden that is laden with glorious smells is an exciting prospect for our pets.

If you create a sensory garden for your pet, you will also benefit from it and with the right plant selection, some pets even self-medicate by selecting certain plants to chew on. Plants such as chamomile, lavender, marigold or hops may help with pets that have anxiety. Clary Sage, Hops and Valerian can assist with hyperactivity and calming pets down. Pets with stomach or digestive issues may self-select meadowsweet, marshmallow, or thyme.

As mentioned earlier, you don’t necessarily have to have a whole garden dedicated to different plants; you can create a mini garden in a plant pot.

Photo courtesy of Samantha Webb and her dog Malcolm – Malcolm is partial to Lemon balm.

Here is a list of good plants and their possible actions: (list courtesy of The Mayhew Animal House in the UK – article posted on internet: )

Catnip: not just for cats! This has relaxation properties and stimulates playfulness in dogs

Chamomile: dogs suffering from anxiety or skin/stomach upsets will be attracted to this plant’s scent

Clary sage: good for highly strung animals and those with hormonal imbalance

Garlic: (GRASS ONLY) is a well-known immune booster. Garlic grass is easy to grow, indoors and outdoors, and can be started from a bulb bought at your local grocery store. Just push the cloves under a quality soil, pointed side up. Keep in mind that the garlic clove, eaten in large amounts, can make your dog ill, and it is toxic to cats. Garlic cloves should not be given to your cat under any circumstance, but the grass that grows from the clove can be nibbled on as your cat feels the need.

Hops: a calming plant often selected by hyperactive and stressed dogs

Lavender: helps to reduce anxiety and other nervous conditions

Marigolds: dogs experiencing grief or emotional distress will often sniff out this plant

Marshmallow: known to help animals with delicate stomachs

Meadowsweet: often selected by dogs with digestive problems, arthritis and rheumatic conditions

Mimulus: used as a remedy for animals that are nervous, timid and shy

Mint: good for cooling properties and will often be selected by dogs who suffer from skin irritations

Plantain: helps gastric irritation and inflammation

Rosemary: another immune booster and is ideal for the indoor gardener, as long as it is trimmed regularly. Rosemary is one of the hardiest of the perennials, but it is prone to root rot if it is over watered. Care must be taken to keep the soil balanced.

Thyme: chosen by animals with bacterial infections, skin irritations and diarrhoea

Valerian: often selected by anxious dogs for its calming effect

Vervain: valuable for treating and nourishing nervous system disorders such as depression

Violets: Nervous dogs or those who have recently changed home may enjoy sniffing this plant

Yarrow: offered to animals with inflammation, urinary problems and internal and external wounds.

It’s not just about plants….

Sensory Gardens are not just about plant choice either and there are other things that can be placed in a garden for a dog (or cat) to enjoy.

Billy in poolDigging pits are always great fun for dogs and you can burry a special treat in the sand for the dog to dig up. You can use a simple child’s clam shell as a digging pit …. And turn it into a little swimming pool in the summer months!

When mowing the lawn, leave a long patch so you can throw dry food or treats in there for the dog/cat to go foraging for or just for them to roll around in and play

Got an old log?

Drill some holes in it and place scent trail in with either food or essential oils

Those dogs that are bred for their scenting abilities would love this sort of enrichment.

You can even create a mini agility run with whatever you have at your disposal for your pets to run around in. Ramps are always great fun for dogs.

Many dogs (and cats for that matter) love water and a simple fountain would not only enhance your garden and life but also your pets (being ever mindful of their safety of course)

Some animals may even appreciate a fish pond (or bowl) where they can see the fish swimming around (place a safety barrier over the top to prevent drowning)

Creating a purrfectly pawsome garden for your pets is really only limited by your imagination.

If you need help in the imagination department (like I do), I can highly recommend you get your paws on this book:

Dog Friendly Gardens: Garden Friendly Dogs

by Cheryl S. Smith – Published by Dogwise Publishing, Wenatchee, WA ISBN 1-929242-07-7

Good luck in creating your beautiful Sensory Garden!


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