No one is certain why cats eat grass, or houseplants, or other vegetable matter that shouldn’t be of any interest to them. In the diet of an obligate carnivore green matter plays very little role, and in fact species-appropriate diets approach vegetable matter at the rate cats would find it in the stomach of their prey, chewed, swallowed and partially digested, and certainly not in any significant amount.
But having healthy young greens available to your cat is not bad for their diet, and in fact can have supplemental health benefits as well as emotional benefits of simply enriching their indoor environment. Links and references are at the end.
“Young” is in large part the operative word when considering greens for your cat. A cat’s carnivore’s teeth don’t do the job of the ruminant in biting off stems of plants and crushing them well before swallowing. Go out in your yard and try pinching off a blade of grass between your fingernails, then try pinching it apart and you’ll see how strong that slender leaf is because of the threads of cellulose that run from stem to tip of the grass—this is what makes a blade of grass stand upright. Now imagine how difficult it would be for your cat to chew with those pointy teeth. Because they can’t chew this thing apart, their digestive system is likewise not ready to process the various raw fibers, especially in those potentially long strands.
Newly-sprouted grasses and plants are soft and tender in comparison because those fibers are fewer and less developed, making the plant easier to bite off in smaller pieces, and to chew apart with feline teeth.
Nutrients in seedlings
A seed is like a little going-away package from a plant to its children. The parent plant has developed the essence of itself and packed a little picnic basket with all the nutrients that essence needs in order to sprout and grow, even without supplemental nutrition or soil, all neatly and safely tucked into a covering and in a shape that best suits the expected new home for the seedling. All the seed needs is appropriate moisture and warmth, and it will sprout, living off that meal provided in the seed for several days or weeks until it grows sufficient roots and develops its own digestive system to start pulling nutrition from its surroundings.
Benefits of whole food in its natural state
Humans have been eating sprouts for millennia, realizing the nutritional value of a newly-sprouted plant which provides vitamins and minerals in an easily-digestible form.
Also, eating a whole, raw food is a natural way to obtain the ingredients of a good diet in a manner and dose that’s appropriate for you or your cat. Rich in iron and calcium, for instance, your cat could never overdose on these while eating grass because she is eating the whole plant and not a processed, concentrated supplement, and she also ingests other elements that actually help her to digest the vitamins and minerals she is getting, including sufficient moisture. It’s remotely possible, but very difficult, for her—or you—to eat enough for a harmful effect from any ingredient.
Benefits of chlorophyll
Chlorophyll is like a plant’s “blood”. It’s what makes a plant green, and it’s what keeps the plant healthy, produced by the plant itself from the nutrients it digests from the soil, from the sun energy it absorbs and the moisture it pulls up in its roots and soaks into its leaves. It is an essential element of the plant’s life force.
The nutritional or medical value of chlorophyll for humans or animals is debated in many forums but it is recommended both nutritionally and medically as a detoxifier and tonic. In New Choices in Natural Healing for Dogs and Cats Amy D. Shojai recommends chlorophyll as a liquid, tablet, or as a fresh or juiced plant to “help the body produce healthier blood” (p. 126), to “remove toxins from the body that can lead to bad smells” (p. 165) and among other herbal supplements that “can help cleanse the liver or even rejuvenate damaged cells” (p. 350). In The Natural Remedy Book for Dogs and Cats Diane Stein describes liquid chlorophyll as “an intestinal, internal and local antiseptic, and it inhibits bacterial growth” (p. 35) and lists a number of other benefits. Both books, and nearly all others in my library of feline health books, mention the use of chlorophyll in supplement or natural form through wheat or barley grass for various conditions.
It’s proven that chlorophyll is more than just a mask but is a natural deodorizer and is often used by people after ostomy surgeries and for bad breath issues rising, literally, from digestive problems, and it’s often used in pet dental products. Nearly 20 years ago when Kublai and I were managing his auto-immune condition, the holistic veterinarian recommended liquid chlorophyll added to his water and administered directly for the nutrients in it and for its detoxifying effects, and in a short time his fur and skin lost the greasy look and smell of illness and the dandruff. And you see several photos here of Peaches who constantly nibbled on her grass. She was on the edge of age- and renal-related anemia from the time she came to me at age 15, and I’ve no doubt this helped with that, with her persistent constipation and a number of other minor conditions she’d been diagnosed with.
And a burst of green freshness in sharing a plant’s “life blood” is a pleasure for your cat both physically and emotionally, as she looks outside and considers her feline heritage.
Preparing and planting your cat garden
To grow your feline greens you would purchase seeds, and it’s safest to purchase seeds intended to be grown for cats. You can find kits including the pot, seeds and growing medium in nearly any pet supply store.
If you want to try a few other ingredients in your feline garden, be aware that many commercially packaged and even bulk seeds, especially grasses, are treated with insecticides or fertilizers—which can be toxic to any animal, including your cat. Be aware that seeds labeled “organic” can have different definitions for “organic”—they may be grown organically and be chemical free, but they may have been grown with chemicals but are not chemically treated, or they may be treated with a chemical that is “considered” organic. They should bear the “USDA organic” logo on them somewhere in order for you to be able to research the how the seeds have been grown and treated, and it’s a good idea to research the company.
I have researched a number of brands available in packets and in bulk at my local Agway stores, my local food co-op and available online as well as those I gather from my own garden, and this is what I stay with.
Truly organic seeds may cost twice as much as other seeds, but remember that you are using a pinch of them, especially if you mix a variety together. It’s worth it for the safety they offer, and they’ll last you a long time.
Types of plants
I keep mentioning “plants”, not just “grass”, for several reasons. Often leafy plants are easier to chew than grass because their leaves don’t develop the cellulose structure of grasses or the strands are shorter, and even their stems are fairly free of cellulose strands when young, so along with wheat, oat, rye and barley grasses consider adding a few other seeds for leafy greens, including catnip, to liven up snacktime. I have also found I there are fewer “deposits” on the floor containing unchewed, undigested blades of grass, so perhaps the smaller leaves and younger plants help with this.
Another benefit of the mix of grasses and plants is they all sprout at different times and grow at different rates, and provide a varied foraging and chewing experience for your cat. It’s not just a gustatory experience either—I’ve seen my cats enjoy their garden just by smell, not even taking a bite, poking their noses on grass stems and burrowing their whole face into their little habitat.
Young catnip sprouts don’t contain the oil that makes them so exciting, but from the first true leaves the plant increases its production of “nepetalactone”, which alone can be enticing just by smell.
Mewsette would promote the joy of nibbling lettuce, and as a basic leafy green leaf lettuce is a fine addition to your cat salad for its varied shape and leafy habit. Mewsette and Jelly Bean would also agree with spinach as a favorite part of their salad. Both are perfectly safe and healthy for your kitties, and the seeds are easy to find. You can also add other leafy greens such as kale, mustard greens and swiss chard, but those flavors may be a little strong for kitty. And alfalfa sprouts, that staple of traditional vegetarian cuisine, add variety and nutrition as well and can sprout in a seed medium as well as on a damp paper towel.
Most herbs are a little too strong for cats, and some that have medicinal properties and may even have negative effects. I avoid beans and peas which grow quickly into stringy and even woody vines, and root crops like carrots and turnips which don’t grow well in containers and may rot instead of growing unless you have a lot of sun.
Do not use seeds for plants in the nightshade or solanaceae family such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and potatoes which are often rich in alkaloids whose toxicity to humans and animals ranges from mildly irritating to fatal in small quantities. Research any other plant you want to add before using it.
Because seeds come with their own nutrition to sprout and grow to a certain extent, you will be sprouting these seeds, not really growing plants, and they don’t need soil for this. For only sprouting seeds you use a “sprouting medium” where they can be kept moist and warm long enough for their seed casing to soften and absorb moisture and awaken the seed inside. It has enough nutrition in its little box lunch (see above) while the seed is sprouting and growing in its first few weeks, and in fact it doesn’t even have the ability to absorb nutrients from its environment until its root system and digestive system are intact and it has enough leaves to photosynthesize.
Many pre-packaged growing media or potting soils may include fertilizers or pesticides, and you obviously need to avoid these. A basic seed-starting medium usually includes only peat moss, perlite or vermiculite, and possibly sand. Peat moss and sand are fine, and perlite, which looks like a little white Styrofoam pellet, is actually an inert and non-toxic volcanic rock that’s been kiln-dried and absorbs and holds moisture, dispensing it when the soil around it becomes dry. There’s been a question of fluoride toxicity from it, but tests show it’s a minimal risk. Vermiculite is a mineral and looks like shiny little slips of mica. Its dust does have a very low level of toxicity similar to asbestos, and while it’s highly unlikely to affect you or your cat in such limited use, I avoid it, hoping that reducing use will reduce the mining of the mineral and risk to others.
For all my seed starting I mix organic peat moss and perlite and add a little finished compost for extra and varied organic matter plus its value of being sterile of diseases but full of good bacteria so it helps to protect the seeds and seedlings from any diseases. If nothing else, you can use plain old peat moss and it will be fine.
Preparing your pots, soil and seeds
You can use any type of container to grow your garden, but depending on how your cats use it you may want to choose something that is sturdy or heavy, or place your growing container into something fairly heavy in case they decided to get a little enthusiastic about it. I use the three pots you see because I can start plants at different times in each one so my cats always have grass. In the past I used the ceramic liner to a crock pot because anything lighter than that was too lightweight and I found it on the floor. I actually don’t have a good, sunny spot to grow grass any more, but I’m working on a spot upstairs.
Make sure your pot has adequate drainage so the growing medium doesn’t hold standing water, risking mildew, but can stay moist. My three containers do not have holes in the bottom, but I have gravel in the bottom so water can drain off the growing medium and for extra weight. I used packing peanuts in the crock pot liner.
You should clean and disinfect your pots each time you start new seeds and start with new growing medium each time to prevent any possible spread of plant diseases, but I’ll admit that I don’t because it’s actually unlikely in this limited application. In fact, mine probably only get cleaned and changed once or twice a year, and I often sprinkle new seeds in when older plants were beginning to fail—or been chewed to bits.
You want your growing medium to be moist before you add your seeds so they don’t wash around or sink into the soil when you water. Add your drainage material to the bottom, then lightly pour in your dry growing medium, stopping about 1/2” from the top of the pot. Gently add water a little at a time and let the medium absorb it, which can take up to an hour, even more with a large pot. Alternately, put your medium in another container and moisten it ahead of time, then add it by the scoop or handful, being careful not to compress it, up to about 1/2” from the top of the pot.
Sprinkle your seeds evenly and pretty thickly over the surface of the soil, either mixing a variety together first or adding them one after another, or arranging them in patterns if that suits you. For fairly small seeds, a coarse salt or pepper shaker works well to keep them evenly distributed.
To give your seeds their first moisture, use a spray bottle and spray them thoroughly with plain water at room temperature, making sure any excess moisture soaks into the soil.
When they are evenly wet, sprinkle about 1/4” of growing medium over them, either dry or pre-moistened, and spray that layer evenly with water until it’s thoroughly moistened as well. You’ll use this method if you need to moisten the soil until the seedlings are large enough to add water by pouring it in.
Let them sprout
Covering with plastic or with a lid of any sort is optional, but keep the covering loose, allowing air circulation. Seeds only need moisture and warmth to sprout, not light, so if you have all new seeds you can put the pot inside a cabinet until you see sprouts, since this will help to keep the environment stable. I do this because some cats like to mess with the growing medium, digging for treasure I can’t imagine. Whatever you choose, it will still need some air flow. Often they won’t need to be watered at all until after they’ve sprouted, or you may only need to dampen the surface so it doesn’t crust over.
When they sprout, they’ll need at least six hours of sunlight each day, at least two hours of direct sunlight, in order to grow, and they grow pretty quickly. You’ll notice they need to be watered every other day or so, or daily if the spot is sunny—the little plants are pulling moisture up from the soil.
Just let them enjoy their garden whatever way they will. When it starts to look tattered, either add new seeds or dump out what you have and start all over again.
And please click over to see Princess Allie totally defending “her” grass garden from her brothers at A Tonk’s Tail—it’s enviably more deluxe than what my kitties have available!
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New Choices in Natural Healing for Dogs & Cats, Amy D. Shojai and the editors of Prevention for Pets, Rodale Press, Inc., 1994.
The Natural Remedy Book for Dogs & Cats, Diane Stein, The Crossing Press, 1994.
Seeds of Change: http://www.seedsofchange.com/ I purchased heritage open-pollinated non-hybrid seeds from this company beginning in 1994 and for a decade harvested my own seeds each year, tailoring what I grew to my own soil and growing conditions, just like people did for centuries in their own gardens and farms. I stopped in 2004 when my town suffered a catastrophic flood—I was not affected, but it was just at harvest time and it broke the cycle for me. I’m trying to re-establish this…
Solanaceae, plants of the nightshade family: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solanaceae
Perlite and fluoride: http://www.schundler.com/florides2.htm
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I am a Master Gardener and began gardening organically several backyards ago. I’ve gathered my knowledge through the wisdom of many gardeners and farmers before me, my library of gardening, landscaping and identification books and manuals, two decades of reading, among others, Organic Gardening Magazine and also being a minor contributing writer to such, and what the land itself has to tell me.
And, of course, close and careful feline oversight.
Browse some rescued cats and kittens!
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