Midwinter is the time I start getting itchy for spring. Every once in a while a warm breeze blows through with the promise of better weather and the disappearance of snow. When that happens, all I can think about is what I’m going to plant in my garden, and every year I take my cats into consideration. Everyone is familiar with catnip, but there are a whole host of plants that you can add to your landscape that are not only easy to grow and beautiful, but also make great treats for your feline friends. Here are five of my favorites:
Often sold in stores as “cat grass,” wheat grass is almost as much of a cat garden staple as catnip. While cats are obligate carnivores — meaning they don’t need plant matter in their diets — some cats are drawn to grass and will munch on it to their heart’s content. As with any other plant, it should be given in moderation. Nobody really knows why they love it, but theories posit that it helps digestion and can stimulate regurgitation if your cat is feeling a little shaky in the stomach. Wheatgrass also contains a whole host of vitamins, from one end of the alphabet to the other. And as an occasional treat, wheatgrass is just the ticket for adding a little extra “oomph” to your cat’s diet.
We usually think of pumpkins as a fall fruit, but you can start growing them in the spring along with your other plants. And just why should you grow a pumpkin or two in your cat’s garden? Well, aside from being fun to bat around (think about how many ball-shaped objects your cat chases), pumpkin pulp is great for settling stomach issues. If Fluffy has diarrhea or Missy is constipated? Pumpkin pulp is a great answer. It contains loads of fiber, which can make digestion easier. And as an added bonus, it stores easily when canned or frozen.
Just be sure to remove the seeds when you’re picking your pumpkins for kitty consumption, or choose a seedless variety for convenience. Similar to pumpkin, acorn squash and butternut squash perform the same functions and are also safe for cats to munch on. So if pumpkins aren’t your thing, you’ve got plenty of gourds to choose from.
An avid rose gardener would blanch at the suggestion that you feed her prized blooms to your favorite kitty, but that’s exactly what you should do: They’re a tasty treat, the petals are fun to bat around (so my cat Pi tells me) and they contain vitamin C. Now, vitamin C isn’t usually a necessary supplement for cats — and too much can cause urinary tract issues — but a small amount every once in a while can actually help combat urinary tract infections and boost your cat’s immune system. Why not let your favorite feline friend get some extra nutrients while having a blast with a rose you picked just for him? Just remember to remove the stem, thorns and leaves before letting your kitty go to town.
Who doesn’t love a nice juicy strawberry on a hot summer day? I know I do. And guess what? Your cat just might love them, too. Strawberries are to be fed only as an occasional treat, and they offer the same “fun” factor as other plants on this list. And if your cat happens to get a taste for them, there just might be some health benefits, too. Strawberries contain antioxidants, chemicals that aid in the removal of toxins from the body. The jury is still out on whether or not antioxidants provide any significant benefit, but anecdotal evidence seems to suggest they do. So while you shouldn’t let your cat turn into a piglet with your strawberries, you can both enjoy them as a sweet treat that’s healthy for both of you.
Let’s say you’ve got one of the estimated 20 to 30 percent of cats who don’t respond to catnip. What do you do? Offer some valerian, of course! This herb, known in humans for its calming effects (in fact, it’s sold as an herbal over-the-counter sleep aid in most places), can provide the same ecstatic, off-the-wall high that catnip provides, with an added stench or aroma that smells a little like dirty sweat socks. The reason is that valerian contains the chemical valerinone, which is chemically similar to neptalactone, the chemical in catnip that makes kitties go crazy. Valerian, just like catnip, should be used in moderation and as an occasional treat, but is definitely worth adding to your herb garden as a token of affection for your beloved pet.
I shouldn’t even need to say it, but do not spray your cat garden with chemicals or pesticides. No growth aids, no weed killer, no ant or beetle killer. While many of these chemicals can be washed off before you bring them to your feline overlord, it’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to feeding your cat from your garden. And if you have stray or feral cats in your neighborhood who may be attracted to your cat garden, they’ll munch on your crops before you have a chance to make them safe.
There are many plants safe for cats to eat, and some provide benefits, like the ones outlined here. Others are just fun little treats to feed from time to time. Do your research before heading to your local nursery and know that even if a plant is non-toxic to cats, vomiting and an upset stomach can occur if your cat eats too much plant matter at one time. Being a carnivore just has its downsides, sometimes.
We want to hear from you — what plants do you add to your garden specifically for the benefit of your kitties? Tell us in the comments!
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About Caitlin Seida: Owned by three cats and two dogs, she never met an animal she didn’t like. A Jill-of-All-Trades, she splits her workday as a writer, humane society advocate and on-call vet tech. What little free time she has goes into pinup modeling, advocating for self-acceptance, knitting and trying to maintain her haunted house (really!).