Help! My Pets are Turning into Cows!
You turn up on your driveway one day and notice your pet grazing your lawn. Except that you don't keep a cow, nor a goat, nor an alpaca. As you step out of your car, he looks up, goes "Woof! Woof!" and resumes gnawing. Since your beloved canine companion clearly isn’t a cow, confusion reigns.
Is he hungry? Bored? Sick? Will eating grass hurt him?
Or your feline might be a finicky eater. She turns up her nose at all but the finest of foods and will only drink water out of a spotlessly clean bowl. But once you let her outside, she starts chowing down on grass. Why would your persnickety pet nibble on the lawn?
First, rest assured that you're not alone in your concern, especially if your pet is eating grass and vomiting.
'Pica' is the technical term for disorder characterized by eating things that aren't food (or part of the 'normal' food). Sometimes pica indicates that your pet has some type of nutritional deficiency, though, hold your horses... it is often simply a sign of boredom, especially practiced by puppies.
Pets eating grass is actually quite common (it has been observed in wild dogs, tigers, even lions) and this form of pica does not usually cause too many problems. In fact, most veterinarians consider it a normal pet behavior. One small-scale study of 149 dog and cat owners whose pets had regular access to grass and other plants found that 79% of the pets had eaten plants at some time.
Why Is My Pet Eating Grass?
1. Natural laxative
One prevailing belief is that grass helps move unsavory things through a pet's system, adding fiber and bulk to its diet, says Animal Planet. Acting like a natural laxative, grass pushes things more easily out the other end. This might include worms or hair that have made it deep into the digestive tract, too far to be vomited out.
Another theory is that grass-eaters are dealing with some sort of gastrointestinal upset. Eating grass may act as a sort of regurgitation tool, helping pets get rid of hair that they swallowed through grooming or feathers and bones from prey she might have captured, according to PetMD.
After munching away on grass, a short time later, pets inevitably upchuck those greens, especially cats. Not because they're gagging on the veggie flavor. It's because cats' systems do not have the correct enzymes to digest plant matter. By regurgitating grass, the cat also expels other indigestible items she may have eaten -- which could include fur balls from grooming, or feathers and bones from any prey she has consumed. Clearing her digestive tract this way is healthy for the cat. It alleviates any feeling of discomfort, even if the process, and its end-products, may repulse her owner. So don't punish your cat for upchucking!
For dogs, grass-eating doesn’t usually lead to throwing up -- less than 25% of dogs that eat grass vomit regularly after grazing. Then again a dog is more of an omnivore than a cat, so the natural instinct to incorporate some greens into its diet makes sense.
Similarly, eating grass may help a pet dealing with an underlying gastrointestinal (GI) disease, such as inflammatory bowel disease or food allergies, writes veterinarian Dr. Wailani Sung in VetStreet.
"For a cat, eating grass may be her way of trying to alleviate any discomfort she may feel," Sung says. "The grass may either provide some material to fill up the stomach or, in some cases, induce vomiting to try to eliminate something in the stomach that is making the cat feel ill."
Grass and other plants can be rich in folic acid, a B vitamin that's important for your pet's health. Animal Planet points out that folic acid, which is also found in a mother pet's milk, helps produce oxygen in the blood. Without enough folic acid, your pet can develop anemia, which can affect its growth.
Experts don't know how a pet would instinctively know that it is lacking in this nutrient. But there could be an inner signal pushing them to go for a graze.
5. Sign of stress or boredom
Constantly eating grass may be a sign of displacement behavior, says Sung, where a pet is trying to cope with stress.
"What may cause your pet to be stressed? She may be genetically predisposed to experiencing anxiety, but in many cases a lack of early socialization or exposure to early negative experiences can also contribute to the development of an anxiety disorder," Sung say. "To cope, some cats may exhibit over-grooming or excessive vocalization when they are anxious, while other cats may try to engage in a different activity to soothe themselves, such as finding something to chew on. Indoor-only cats may not have access to grass so they may chew on household plants instead."
Should I Stop My Pet from Eating Grass? If So, How?
If you suspect your dog is eating grass because they are bored, it might be beneficial to be sure they are getting enough exercise. Engage them in some fun activities. Try tossing a Frisbee or playing another interactive game with them, or buy them a sturdy chew toy to keep them occupied.
If you think your cat is stressed and thus reverts to this herbivore-grazing behavior, pay more attention to her. Cuddle, pet, and lavish her with the attention she craves. If she blinks slowly or purrs, you know you have a satisfied kitty on your lap.
On the chance that your pet’s pica behavior is caused by a nutritional deficiency, switching to a better pet food, especially a high-fiber variety, could help alleviate the problem.
Although most experts agree that grazing itself isn’t harmful, one thing to keep in mind is that certain herbicides and pesticides used on lawns can be quite toxic, especially if ingested. Additionally, a number of common house and garden plants are toxic, which could lead to problems if your pet munches on them along with the lawn. To make sure the plants in and around the area where your pet is eating grass aren’t dangerous, check the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center website, which maintains a list of toxic and non-toxic plants.
Unfortunately, you can’t always tell if public parks or the laws you pass on your daily walks have been treated with pesticides. For your pet’s health, assume that every blade of grass has been treated. If your pet tries to sample your neighbors’ yards, gently pull him or her away from the lawn and offer a small treat instead.
If it’s not convenient to establish a pesticide-free zone in your yard, consider growing grass inside your home. Planting grass in pots or containers is a simple way to ensure that your furry friend has a source of fresh, safe grass. Not sure what kind of grass to plant? Cat behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett suggests growing a pot of 'safe grass' for your pet using wheatgrass, wheat, rye, or oat seeds. These are available online and in garden stores, are a natural, good source of protein, potassium, fiber, iron, zinc, copper and vitamins A, C, E, K, and B6.
Modern Dog: A Vet’s Take on Why Dogs Eat Grass
PetMD: Why Do Cats Eat Grass?
Applied Animal Behavioural Science, 5/08
National Institutes of Health: Environmental Research: Household Chemical Exposures and the Risk of Canine Malignant Lymphoma, a Model for Human Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, 1/12