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Sensory Gardens - another great pet environmental enrichment idea

Posted in Client Service @ Sep 8th 2016 - By Gillian Shippen, Nurse Manager & Director Pets Need A Life Too
Sensory Gardens Another Great Pet Environmental Enrichment Idea Vetanswers Blog Post

Sensory gardens are a great way to de-stress your dog (& cat!)

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.

Gardens can be about more than just sight

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 you want to create a sensory garden for your pets?  

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.

To find out more as to why sniffing is so important for your dog - whether at home with a sensory garden, or out on exploring on a walk, check out Why Sniff Time Is so Important to Your Dog.

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 Wabb and her dog Malcolm - Malcolm is partial to Lemon Balm!

List of good plants and thir possible actions

List courtesy of a post from The Mayhew Animal House in the UK: The Stress-busting Sensory Garden

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.

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.

And it’s not just about plants….

SensoryGardens 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.

Digging 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!

If you have any questions for Gillian about creating a sensory garden - why not ask her in  the Comments section below?


About Gillian

Gillian Shippen is not only a Nurse Manager, but has also written a book: 'Pets Need a Life Too - A Guide to Enriching the Life of Your Pet - Series One: Dogs' AND she runs her online website 'Pets Need a Life Too!' where she sells a range of enrichment toys for pets including wheelchairs for dogs.

Click here to visit: Pet's Need A Life Too! Page in the Vetanswers Business Directory


Carmel @ Sep 10th 2016 8:30pm
Hi Judy and Gillian. What a great blog post! I would love to share it with my pet people at Active Pet Rehabilitation, and my own pets too!
Judy @ Sep 12th 2016 12:29pm
Thanks Carmel - I love the ideas in this post too. Glad you think your clients and pets will appreciate it as well. :)
Gillian @ Sep 16th 2016 10:02am
Thank you Carmel - It is one of my most favourite things for behaviour and environemental enrichment. It is so beneficial for every being in the household
Penny @ Feb 8th 2019 9:50am
This was a really helpful article, thank-you for all of your tips, and ideas.
Judy @ Feb 8th 2019 11:07am
Thanks Penny, I'm glad you enjoyed Gillian's post!
Amanda @ Jan 15th 2022 9:39am
Hops is highly toxic for dogs and can cause death and seizures. You may want to take it off the list
Judy @ Jan 18th 2022 5:37pm
Thanks for bringing that to our attention Amanda. We've now removed hops from the list and will make contact with the original authors in the UK to advise them as well. - Judy & Gillian
Nina Hasbury @ Apr 6th 2022 1:29am
Hi Judy and Gillian, Thia is such a good blog. I currently volunteer for a dog rescue and we are looking at creating a sensory space for our more nervous dogs. We can definately use some of these ideas. If you could offer any more tips or helpful info please drop me an email, i would love to hear from you. Thanks Nina
Judy @ Apr 6th 2022 12:19pm
Thanks Nina - Gillian is the expert in this area so I'll make sure she sees your comment and will also pass on your email address to her :) Regards, Judy

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