Cats are carnivores, pure and simple. Their digestive system is built to handle meat, their dietary needs are largely protein and specific amino acids derived from meat, and pretty well anything else they eat can be filed under ‘junk food’ for the purposes of nutrition.
But many cats will happily go after houseplants, grass, and of course, cat grass and catnip. So, what gives? Can cats eat plants? Why do cats eat plants when they don’t need them? And which plants should you avoid letting your cat anywhere near?
For the sake of brevity, when we are talking about ‘plants’ in this context, we are talking primarily about houseplants and grass; things that cats come into contact with daily and may seek out. Herbs and veggies can be tackled separately (though they usually can’t/should not eat those either).
Do Cats Like Plants?
This is an interesting question. Cats aren’t built to digest plants and yet they will often go after them anyway. It’s not precisely known why cats enjoy gnawing on green stuff, but the prevailing thought is that they enjoy the texture and crave the fiber.
Most cats won’t actually swallow plants, at least not more than a bite or two, and instead, you’ll just find your plants covered in bite marks. That being said, grass in particular can easily wind up in a cat’s stomach, usually leading to digestive issues like vomiting.
Another theory is that cats eat plants specifically to force them to vomit if they are trying to get something up that is bothering them.
And of course, some cats are just brats and enjoy chewing on things to get a rise out of us humans! Kittens may also chew on plants because the plant is a new sensation and kittens are naturally curious.
Do Cats Hate Plants?
There are cats that probably won’t bother with plants very much or at all. I haven’t really met them yet (every cat I’ve ever owned has at least sniffed an interesting plant if not tried to gnaw on it, though my sister’s cat was actively frightened of grass, so she was less inclined to go after the green stuff). It’s not that they hate plants, they just aren’t interested. This is likely a relief to those cat owners who also like plants!
Can Plants Kill Cats?
While some plants are harmless (or even provide some minor benefits), other plants are extremely toxic to cats, to the point where even the water the plant was in is toxic! The top poisonous plants for cats are:
- Lily: Pretty well every lily is extremely toxic to cats, causing severe kidney failure in even small amounts. This includes Easter lilies, Asiatic lilies, tiger lilies, and daylilies. Even the pollen is highly toxic. Even the water the plants are in can be toxic. Lilies are simply a no-no for people with cats.
- Sago Palm: Extremely poisonous, causing bloody vomiting and diarrhea, bleeding disorders, liver failure, and death
- Oleander: Oleander, when ingested, can cause fatal heart problems, muscle tremors, a lack of coordination, seizures, vomiting, and bloody diarrhea
- Autumn Crocus. The bulbs, seeds, and flowers have the highest toxicity and can cause a burning sensation in the mouth, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, liver/kidney damage, heart arrhythmias, and death
- Azaleas and Rhododendron: Oral irritation, vomiting, diarrhea, drop in blood pressure, heart arrhythmias, coma, and death
- Daffodil: the bulb is the most toxic, causing oral irritation, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, arrhythmias, convulsions, and blood pressure drop
- Cyclamen: Oral irritation, vomiting and diarrhea, heart abnormalities, seizures, and death (in large quantities).
- Foxglove, lily of the valley, and Japanese Yew can cause heart arrhythmias and death
Other plants that can easily cause vomiting and diarrhea are tulips, poinsettias, and dumb cane.
If you’re not sure about whether a plant is safe to have around your cat, it’s best to either speak to a veterinarian or err on the side of caution and don’t bring it into the house at all (or put it somewhere your cat cannot get to it). Some cats may also be more sensitive to plants than others, so what’s safe for one cat may cause vomiting in another.
How Many Plants are Safe for Cats to Eat?
While no plant is going to do much of anything for a cat from a nutrition perspective, the right plants can offer some other benefits such as chewing, relieving boredom, and helping get something out of their system that is bothering them.
Some plants are also good for relaxing cats and even helping with itchy skin! So which plants are safe to have around cats?
- Catnip of course! Catnip is part of the mint family and it’s generally safe for cats. It makes them relaxed, gets rid of stress, and helps with itchiness. I’ve had a couple of cats who loved the stuff and one cat who actually ran away from it. (We always joked that she was telling our older cat ‘just say no!’ to which the older cat would sneer and proceed to ignore her).
- Valerian. For humans, valerian is often used as a sleep aid. For cats, it works as a stimulant, giving them more energy to run around, rather like a caffeine boost. Don’t let your cat have more than an exceedingly small amount though.
- Cat thyme. Not technically thyme at all, but germander. Cat thyme is a soothing plant-like catnip.
- Licorice root: Licorice root can help to soothe itchiness, colds, and arthritis.
- Spider plant: spider plant is absolutely safe to chew on and cats really like it because of the long fronds
- Wandering Jew
- Christmas cactus
- Oat/rye/barley grass (Also known as ‘cat grass’
- Grass. Straight up lawn grass is usually pretty safe for cats to chew on, though it can sometimes cause vomiting. Some people theorize that cats go after grass specifically to induce vomiting if they are feeling queasy. Make sure your cat does not chew on grass that has been sprayed with chemicals
As for a specific amount that cats can eat, it’s unlikely they’ll eat very much at one go anyway. For most cats, the plant is providing something to chew on more than something to eat, so they won’t eat more than a bite or two of any plant anyway.
Catnip and cat thyme are the only things that you could give in a ‘measurable’ amount and most people either grow a small pot of it for their cats to gnaw on or have it dried in toys for cats to rub and sniff.
Keeping Cats Away from Your Houseplants
Health aside, you probably don’t want most of your plants to be covered in tooth-marks, so how can you keep cats away from your plants? There are a number of methods you can use:
- Plant rosemary. Many cats hate the smell
- Mix lemon or orange peels in the soil. The citrus smell irritates cats and will also keep them away. This also discourages many cats from using pots as a litter box
- Surround your plants with irritating things like aluminum foil or a fence
- Distract your cat with other toys until they stop bothering with the plants
- Get plants with spikes or thorns
- Place plants in places your cat doesn’t bother going to (or cannot get to or that you can you lock)
- Plant a ‘decoy’ plant-like catnip, cat grass, or spider plant
Cats cannot be easily trained, but they can be either conditioned to stop bothering with your plants or irritated enough that it’s not worth their effort to go after the plants!
Many cats will chew on plants. They seem to enjoy the texture, it may provide relief from minor pain, and some may even like the taste! The trick is to make sure that you keep plants that are highly toxic to cats away from them, have a few plants around that cats can enjoy, and condition cats away from the rest.
In this way, you can have your furry friend and your leafy plants share the same space harmoniously.
Does your cat eat plants? What’s their favorite?