Your cat starts eating grass, and you know what happens next. If you’re lucky, your considerate kitty will aim for the laminate. For most of us, however, we end up grabbing the rubber gloves to clean cat puke off the carpet. It’s common knowledge that cats (and dogs, too) eat grass to make themselves throw up. It supposedly settles their stomachs when they’re feeling sick. But what if that whole “eating grass to feel better thing” wasn’t completely true? Researchers with University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine recently completed a study that might change everything you thought you knew about why cats eat grass.
Researchers Want to Know
The topic of why cats eat grass was recently brought up at an annual meeting of the International Society for Applied Ethology. To answer the question, cat experts turned to the UC Davis study that involved 1,021 cat owners. Each cat owner committed to observing their felines’ behavior for at least 3 hours every day. All of the participating cats had access to pet-safe grass and allowed opportunities for snacking.
The first thing researchers found was that eating grass is a common behavior for cats of all ages. Only 11% of the participating cats refrained from eating grass.
Of that vast majority that at least occasionally ate grass, only about a quarter of the cats vomited afterward. This is the first statistic that starts putting holes in our previous theory that cats eat grass because they want to make themselves throw up. If that were true, why weren’t there more soiled carpets?
To take it a step further, observers took note of whether or not their cats showed symptoms of feeling unwell before they started biting at the grass. This was a bit tricky, because as most cat owners know, cats are particularly good at hiding their pain. They usually face their ailments with stoic indifference, but there are subtle ways to tell if a cat isn’t feeling well. Increased thirst, decreased appetite, excessive vocalizations, and behavioral changes are all examples.
Out of the grass-eating cats, 91% showed no signs of feeling sick before they started eating grass. One or two cats caught eating grass for no apparent reason could have been a coincidence, but with an overwhelming majority showing no signs of illness, we’re forced to change what we thought we always knew.
A Few New Theories
With their evidence in hand, researchers started looking at other reasons why cats choose to eat grass. One theory is that the behavior is based on instinct. Early on, before cats were our pampered pets, they practiced purging as a way of protecting themselves from parasites. Intestinal parasites were a common threat that came from eating infected rodents. The only way cats knew to get rid of the parasites was to throw them up along with the rest of their meals. Eating grass was one way to make that happen.
Thanks to modern veterinary care, cats haven’t had to worry about parasites for a long time. Even still, inducing regurgitation could be an instinct left over after all these years. The more likely theory, however, is a lot simpler.
Researchers have come to the conclusion that, in most cases, cats eat grass not because they feel sick, but because they simply enjoy it. They probably consider grass to be a tasty treat that is easily accessible. There’s a good chance they know they might throw it back up, but with only a quarter of grass-eating incidents resulting in regurgitation, vomiting is more of a potential byproduct than a desired outcome.
Does This Change Anything?
Science can tell us a lot about our feline best friends. This study suggests that cats thoroughly enjoy eating grass, and as long as it’s a non-toxic plant, there’s nothing for you to worry about. It would be useful to research cat-safe greenery and even plant some for your felines to enjoy.
And the next time your cat eats grass, there’s no reason to assume she’s sick. Monitor her for symptoms just in case, but there’s a good chance she’s simply helping herself to a satisfying snack.