If your houseplants are looking a little ragged or your cat shows symptoms of illness, interaction between them could be the cause. Houseplants may be good for the health of a home but can be dangerous for our feline friends. It is possible, however, to create a level of détente between them.
Although cats aren’t herbivores (their teeth aren’t designed for grinding plant matter), they do like plants as both toys and snacks. “I haven’t seen any consensus or definitive answer on why,” said Pam Johnson-Bennett, CCBC, owner of Cat Behavior Associates in Nashville, Tenn., who is a former veterinary technician and author of the recently released Think Like a Cat. “Chewing greenery may help with digestion, or something may be lacking in their diet. Boredom can do it; plants become something dangling and irresistible to bat and play with, and the next step is to chew on them.”
The problem is that “plants are either deadly or, at the very least, toxic to cats,” Johnson-Bennett said. “If they don’t kill your cat, at least it will experience intestinal disorders. Even the most basic houseplant, such as philodendron, is toxic, and toxicity can be extremely painful. Dieffenbachia can cause the cat’s tongue to swell, which affects breathing.”
Signs of Trouble
It’s fairly easy to tell if your cat has chewed on or swallowed a plant; the symptoms are vomiting, difficulty in breathing and lethargy. “If you see bits of plant matter in the vomitus or stool, there’s a good chance” the cat has snacked on your plants, according to Johnson-Bennett. Be sure you know the names of plants in your house, because knowing what plant your cat has eaten can affect treatment; inducing vomiting is sometimes the right move, but that can sometimes make matters worse.
If you notice these behaviors, call the veterinarian right away. “I don’t wait,” Johnson-Bennett said. “If I think my cat has ingested something poisonous, I am on the phone to the vet right away. Don’t have a wait-and-see attitude.”
The Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ poison control center (aspca.org/Pet-care/poison-control/plant-list-cats.aspx) may be able to help, but nothing replaces getting to the vet right away.
Creating a Safe Harbor
A big believer that cats can be trained, Johnson-Bennett said that cats can be discouraged from eating houseplants if you apply bitter antichew spray made specifically for plants to the tops and bottoms of leaves. “You have to use it a couple of times at first, and reapply it on occasion.” (Be sure to wear gloves and a mask when using such a spray, and to wash your hands immediately after using it.)
Give cats a safe alternative that fulfills their apparent need for greenery; grass is the best bet. “You can grow cat grass in a place away from your plants; there are kits at pet stores and organic food stores. Wheat grass is very safe,” Johnson-Bennett noted. This may cause vomiting as well in some cats as a natural reaction when eating grass.
The best way to encourage cats to leave plants alone is to make sure they have enough play time, activities and toys to distract them from the plants, she said.
By the way, cats aren’t the only animals to pose a threat to houseplants; dogs may also nibble on houseplants when bored or lonely. “Dogs are chewers, so that problem can be solved by providing chew toys—something that is self-soothing, encourages comfort behavior and reduces separation anxiety,” Johnson-Bennett said.
Even better than training your cat to stay away from your plants is to “train the plants”:
- Trim the trailing leaves and fronds of plants in hanging baskets to keep them out of reach.
- Move plants away from areas where your cat likes to play or relax, and out of the path to the litter box.
- Put garden netting or double-sided tape in planters in a criss-cross pattern to keep cats out.
- Put large (too big for the cat to swallow and too heavy to move easily) river stones on top of dirt so that potting dirt isn’t easily accessible, which is both effective and decorative.
- The Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals maintains a list of plants that can be safe versus toxic to cats (aspca.org/Pet-care/poison-control/plant-list-cats.aspx).
- The Cat Fancier’s Association also maintains lists of plants that are safe for (cfa.org/client/plantsnontoxic.aspx) or poisonous to (cfa.org/client/plants.aspx) cats.
This article originally appeared in PetsMatter March / April 2012, published by the American Animal Hospital Association. Copyright © 2012 AAHA.