On Cats and Plants: A Sometimes Sick and Twisted Love Affair

By Kim Everson, DVM

Yesterday afternoon, after knocking down some tall grass and weeds next to the shed, I noticed our farm cat Jimi Happy Hendrix staring intently into the green debris. At first I thought he was tormenting a mouse, but on closer inspection found he was simply fascinated with a fragrant weed. Growing up I always called that particular weed “mint” due to the sharp minty odor its leaves emit when crushed. Soon Jimi was pressing his nose into the plant, pushing and rubbing his head all over the leaves. It reminded me of the common feline response to catnip!

Another farm cat enjoying some naturally occuring catnip.

A quick internet search on Wisconsin weeds revealed that I have catnip growing all over the place on my farm. I was shocked to read that some people intentionally propagate this plant in their landscaping. And I thought it was just a farm weed!

Here are some fun facts about catnip (Nepeta cataria):

  • the chemical nepetalactone is the thing that triggers the feline’s response
  • the catnip reaction is inherited, so some cats are totally unaffected by it
  • large cats like tigers can be sensitive to it as well
  • the reaction to catnip only lasts a few minutes before the cat acclimates to it; it can take an hour or two away from catnip for the cat to “reset,” but then they may have a reaction again
  • very young kittens and older cats seem less likely to have a reaction to catnip

While this particular plant obsession of Jimi’s is reasonable and safe, it got me to thinking of a recent case that did not have a happy ending.

Sport* was a 2-year-old male neutered indoor tabby cat. He had been vomiting green fluid and not eating well for about two days when his owners called, worried he had eaten a plant prior to onset of his illness. Sport’s physical exam revealed lethargy and dehydration. His laboratory work was consistent with sudden kidney failure. Next I placed a call to Animal Poison Control Center, a division of the ASPCA. With the clinical data and plant information in hand (bless the owners for supplying details about the suspected plant culprit — this is very important in a toxicity case and rarely available!), we determined that Sport had ingested a type of lily. While beautiful, lilies are notorious for causing kidney failure in cats. Unfortunately, even with several days of aggressive therapy it became evident that Sport’s kidneys were too damaged to allow for recovery, and he was humanely euthanized to alleviate further suffering.

Stargazer Lily

It is alarming how many plants are extremely toxic to cats. And cats seem to love chewing on most of them. The Animal Poison Control Center provides several helpful resources for pet owners. Here are just a few:

If your indoor cat is a plant chewer, it is best to eliminate the dangerous varieties listed on the ASPCA website from his living quarters entirely. For outdoor kitties, you can avoid planting toxic varieties, but obviously the risk of her ingesting a neighbor’s unsafe foliage has to be added to the long list of other dangers outdoor cats face on a daily basis while out cavorting.

* Names have been changed to protect privacy.

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