NEW MARKET, Va. (AP) -- A pet garden can be the cat's meow, provided you research your selections well and don't serve up too much of a good thing.
Most are aware of catnip's entertainment value. The aromatic herb contains the chemical nepetalactone, among other things, making it a mild stimulant and hallucinogen for felines. ''Cats will rub and sometimes ingest the plant, and then act 'drunk' or 'wild' for up to an hour or more,'' the Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine says. ''No lasting toxicity is reported. If excessive amounts are ingested, vomiting and diarrhea can result.''
So parcel it out in moderation.
''It gets to a point where they're not interested anymore,'' says Kris Higgins, with Tagawa Garden Center and Florist at Aurora, Colo. ''Some cats after a couple of binges decide they won't go near it.''
''Anything can be harmful; anything can be safe. It depends upon the quantity,'' says Dr. Fred Oehme, a veterinarian and professor of toxicology and pathobiology at Kansas State University.
''Any herbal medicine can make an animal sick. Too little won't do anything (positive),'' says Oehme, who also runs the university's poison control center.
Cautions notwithstanding, pet gardens can help drive down your pet food bills, keep your animals closer to home, possibly reduce flea and tick infestations and open the way to safer yards.
In learning about what's wholesome and good for your pets to eat, you're also likely to learn about what's bad for them.
So let's start with the ''goods.''
Sunflower heads, leaf lettuce, melon rinds and weeds are great for throwing into your chicken and duck yards. Foraging fowl make short work of them. Box turtles like lettuce leaves, cherry tomatoes (sliced) and slivers of fruit, among other things.
Wheat and oat grasses are a feline salad bar. They also make good edible plants for whatever rabbits or guinea pigs your kids may have around the house.
''Cats love herbs of all kinds,'' says Tagawa's Higgins. ''And they love to chew on grasses -- wheat and ornamental grasses among them.''
Enzymes from grasses help carnivores digest food in their systems.
Lavender and rosemary leaves added to some water and brewed up as a ''tea'' works well as a dog rinse, Higgins says. ''It leaves the animal's coat shiny and acts as something of a deodorant, too,'' she says.
Garlic cloves ground and added to dog or cat food several times a week can aid digestion, Higgins says.
Citrus oil taken from your orange or lemon trees can make an effective flea deterrent when rubbed into your cat's fur. Dried catnip mixed with crushed tansy can be used to drive fleas from your dogs.
Try stuffing some of the mixture into a handkerchief, rolling it into a makeshift collar and then rubbing the contents daily to refresh the aroma.
And then there is the ''bads.''
One of the primary plants on the not wanted list is dieffenbachia. Its juices are toxic to animals and children. ''It depends upon the dose, but a horse can be poisoned with four-or five leaves,'' says Kansas State's Oehme. ''So you can figure what would happen to a cat.''
Lilies of the Valley also can be harmful to pets. ''Cats are more sensitive to kidney problems because they don't drink as much water as dogs do,'' Oehme says.
Some others to be avoided for the sake of your dogs and cats, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, are caladium, cala lily, castor beans, oleander, primroses and rhododendron.
There is no shortage of seed companies or nurseries ready to help you get growing directing some of their garden products.
Cattail Gardens, at Redmond, Ore., sells cat grass products that can be grown inside apartments, from trays on windowsills or balconies or in small pockets of your vegetable garden. American Meadows Inc., based in Charlotte, Vt., offers a five-packet seed collection for a ''Kitty Cat Garden'' that has proven popular, spokesman Mike Lizotte says.
''We're selling it all over the country and across Canada,'' he says. ''The collection includes catnip, oats, rye grass, leaf lettuce and wheat. Cat grasses are a growing niche product in the food and garden industry.''
Next up for American Meadows, Lizotte says, is a seed selection for dog gardens. If you decide to start gardening for your pets, check with a veterinarian before turning any ground.
''Most of the nation's poison control centers have contact with a toxicologist veterinarian,'' Oehme says. ''And almost any veterinary diagnostic library has a toxicology section in it, especially at a university. Most offer 24-hour-per-day responses.''
On the Net:
American Association of Poison Control Centers: http:..www.aapcc.org
American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: http://www.aspca.org.
EDITOR'S NOTE -- Dean Fosdick retired in May 2001 after 23 years with The Associated Press, 15 of those as Alaska bureau chief. He covered the Exxon Valdez oil spill, volcanoes, galloping glaciers and harvesting Alaska-grown 100-pound-plus cabbages. He can be reached at: deanfosdick(at)netscape.net.
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