Dealing with Plant-Eating Pets

Cats eating houseplants
If your cat enjoys eating houseplants, consider growing cat grass as a healthy alternative.

By Linda Naeve
Urban Agriculture Specialist
Iowa State University Extension

Cats have a reputation for two things - they can be finicky eaters and they are very independent. They turn their noses up at some brands of cat food yet will nibble on a variety of houseplants. This annoying problem not only disfigures the plants, it may be hazardous to the pet's health.

Although it may seem like your cat picks your favorite plant for an afternoon snack to spite you, experts say a cat's need to graze on indoor plants may be an instinct or need to overcome a nutritional deficiency in its diet. Cats that routinely go outside in the summer will chew and eat grass to obtain vitamins and minerals they are lacking. When they are indoors, or the grass is covered with snow, the only things around to satisfy their need for something green are your houseplants.

Pets, however, should be more finicky or choosy about the plants they chose to nibble on because certain houseplants that can make them seriously ill. Due to their small size, a few bites of a toxic plant can have a serious effect on them. For example, "True" lilies in the Lilium genus, such as Easter lilies and 'Stargazer' lilies, are highly toxic to cats and, when ingested, will cause kidney failure. Sadly, death is almost inevitable once the cats show symptoms of poisoning include vomiting, lethargy and lack of appetite.

Below is a partial list of common houseplants that can harm your pets. If the leaves of these plants are ingested, they may cause your pet to behave abnormally and/or vomit. This is not a complete list because some plants that are not considered toxic may cause an allergic reaction in your pet. Contact your veterinarian immediately if you suspect your pet has eaten a toxic plant.

Aloe (Aloe vera)
Arrowhead vine or Nephthytis (Syngonium podopyllum
Asparagus fern (asparagus sprengeri)
Azalea (Rhododendron spp.)
Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata)
Caladium (Caladium hortulanum)
Corn plant (Dracaena frangrans massangeana)
Cyclamen (Cyclamen spp.)
Dracaena (Dracaena marginata)
Dumb cane (Diefenbachia spp.)
Elephant's ear (Colocasia esculenta)
Lilies (Lilium spp.)
Peace lily (Spathiphyllum spp.) 
Philodendron (Philodendron spp.)
Plumosa fern (Asparagus plumosa)
Pothos (Scindapsus spp.)
Umbrella plant or Schefflera (Brassaia actinophylla)

Since cats will do whatever they please, it is very difficult to break them of their houseplant diet. If they insist on eating your plants, grow only those that are safe or grow a plant that will help their digestion rather than harm it. Cat grass, sold at pet stores and garden centers, is a healthy alternative to turfgrass and other plants. Most commercially available cat grass seed is common oats, Avena sativa, however, it may also be packaged as a blend of oats, wheat and rye grass.

Cat grass seed can be planted indoors anytime of the year. Sow the seed in a six to eight-inch diameter container filled with fresh potting soil. Sprinkle the seeds generously and uniformly over the surface and cover them lightly with more soil. Water the soil thoroughly and set the container where it will receive bright light. When the leaf blades are about 2 inches tall, place it a bright location where your cat will find it. Start new containers of cat grass every few weeks to guarantee a fresh supply. Cat grass will not only satisfy a cat's craving for green, it will satisfy a gardener's itchy green thumb in the middle of winter.

Source: Animal Poison Control Center

Linda Naeve, Horticulture, (515) 294-8946,
Jean McGuire, Continuing Education and Communication Services, (515) 294-7033,

A color photo, suitable for publication: catandplant.jpg