Nibbling grass seems an unusual habit for carnivores like cats, but it’s surprisingly common. Here, we look at what might lie behind it, and whether owners should be worried.
Cats are ‘obligate carnivores’, which means they have to eat meat, and don’t need plant-based foods to survive. But if you’re a cat owner, you might well have seen your pet munching on long blades of grass outdoors. So, why are some cats obsessed with eating grass? And could this be a problem for their health?
Why do cats eat grass?
Grass is a digestive aid for cats
One idea is that cats use grass as an aid for feline indigestion. They lack the enzymes needed to digest grass, and so the individual blades either pass through their systems whole, or are regurgitated. Either way, the grass may help ease stomach discomfort and allow your cat to clear any indigestible matter (such as their own hair; or fur, feathers and bones from their prey) from their system.
It’s quite common for cats to be sick after eating grass – one study found that over a quarter of cats do this. Often, it’s not true vomit, but grass regurgitated with fur, feathers or other indigestible matter. A cat eating grass and vomiting isn’t normally a cause for concern, but if your cat is sick frequently (more than once a week) or you notice blood or mucus in their vomit, or they start foaming at the mouth, take them to the vet as soon as possible.
Animal nutritionists and behaviourists aren’t sure of the exact reasons why cats eat grass, but they do have several theories…
Cats eat grass for nutrition
In the wild, cats consume small amounts of vegetable matter when they eat the stomachs of their prey. Our pet cats may not get the same nutrients in their processed cat food, so some experts think they may eat grass as a substitute. Grass juice contains folic acid, which helps support blood, immune and digestive health, as well as trace amounts of vitamins A and D and niacin.
Cats are purging parasites
Scientists have discovered that the ancient ancestors of many meat-eating mammals, including cats and primates, would eat grass to help purge worms and other parasites from their digestive systems. The grass, being high in insoluble fibre, stimulates muscle activity along the digestive tract, helping them to expel the parasites in their poo.
This theory might explain why younger cats are more likely to eat grass, as they have immature immune systems and are more prone to parasites. So, a domestic cat eating grass may be showing instinctive behaviour that’s a throwback to their wild ancestors. But this doesn’t mean the habit is a substitute for worming. Even if your cat likes to snack on greenery, make sure they have regular, vet-approved worming treatments, too.
If your cat keeps eating grass, you might notice that they seem to be really enjoying it. Some scientists have proposed that eating grass might trigger a reward response in the cat’s brain, similar to the dopamine hit that pandas get from eating bamboo. Others think the munching may help to calm them, like humans chewing gum, or ease anxiety. Or it may just taste nice!
Is grass safe for cats to eat?
If your cat likes to chomp on the edges of your lawn, don’t use chemical weed killers or pesticides that could be poisonous to them. If your cat has taken to nibbling your neighbours’ grass, ask them to avoid harmful chemicals, too, and consider providing a pot or tray of cat grass in your home.
If your cat likes to eat their greens, it’s especially important to make sure you don’t have any toxic plants or cut flowers around your home or garden. Lilies can be fatal to cats, and other common plants, such as daffodils, amaryllis and aloe vera, can cause vomiting and diarrhoea.
Should my indoor cat eat grass?
Giving your indoor cat their own fresh grass will help satisfy their instinctive behaviour to chew a few blades, and may even bring health benefits (as outlined above). Broad-leafed grass varieties such as oat, rye, barley, wheat, alfalfa and cocksfoot – sometimes called ‘cat grass’ – are safe for your pet and easy to grow.
Can eating grass ever be harmful for cats?
Usually it’s a harmless habit, but very rarely, a cat may get a grass seed or blade stuck in their nose or sinuses. If you notice your cat repeatedly sneezing, pawing their face, or with a runny nose or eyes after eating grass, take them to the vet to see if this could be the problem.
Your cat should also be checked out if you notice them eating much more grass than they normally do, if they vomit more than usual after eating grass, or if you suspect they may have eaten chemically treated grass. But, in general, don’t worry: eating grass is a normal habit in healthy cats.