It’s a familiar scenario: You’re binge-watching your favorite television show before it expires from Netflix. You have a bowl of popcorn on one side, and a cat on the other. Absorbed in the program, you carelessly toss a handful of popcorn into your mouth, and few kernels fall into your lap. A crunching sound catches your ears, and you look down to see the cat chewing on a stray kernel. Alarmed, you mutter, “Can cats eat popcorn?” Considering today (Jan. 19) is National Popcorn Day, it’s a good day to answer this question.
As a general rule, keep any kind of popcorn away from very young kittens and senior cats, as it can present choking or digestive hazards that they are not equipped to deal with. For the majority of our cats, though, the answer is yes and no; it really depends on the way your popcorn is prepared, whether there are additives that might upset your cat’s digestion, and the amount of popcorn you’re allowing your cat to ingest.
Without getting into the ongoing debate over whether cats should be subjected to vegetarian diets — they shouldn’t — a quick glance at your standard bag or tin of cat food is revealing. The bag of dry kibble that my cat eats has, as its first listed ingredient, ground yellow corn. This use of corn meal in cat food is extremely common, meant to create cohesion for the kibbles, and as a filler. It also provides a strictly limited amount of supplemental carbohydrates for energy.
Popcorn is its own unique strain of corn, a staple grain that has been cultivated by humans for thousands of years. All varieties of corn, including popping corn, contains small amounts of dietary fiber, B vitamins, iron, and protein. On a per-kernel basis, and assuming your cat eats only a few pieces of freshly popped corn, any actual health benefits are negligible, but also not harmful. There are caveats, though, with regard to the way your popcorn is prepared and served.
It’s the additives in popcorn, especially easy-to-make and convenient microwave popcorn, that makes it dangerous, and even toxic, for cats. Restrict your cat’s access to pre-made varieties of popcorn, with special emphasis if the popcorn contains significant amounts of onion, garlic, butter, or salt. Candied gourmet popcorn is a no-go as well, including popcorn coated in caramel or chocolate, or varieties heavily powdered with cheese flavorings. In combination, these additives and seasonings eliminate any potential health benefits your cat might derive from untreated popcorn.
On the other hand, air-popped popcorn, freshly made, still warm when it gets to the bowl, is okay for cats in moderation. The warmth and scent of air-popped popcorn present intriguing qualities that cats are instinctively attracted to. In very small amounts — a few pieces at a time — popcorn can be relatively safe for your cat to chew on, and certainly to play with. Even the plainest popcorn does not offer any real nutritional value to your cat, but neither does it present much of a risk.
As long as it’s a fully popped, fluffy piece, that is. Unpopped kernels can be too tough for a cat to chew on, and, if ingested in too large a number, might be difficult to move through a cat’s digestive tract without effort. As anyone who’s eaten popcorn knows, not every flake, as popped corn is known, arrives in our bag, bowl, or carton fully cooked. We’ve all slightly gagged on a bit of popcorn husk, and all spent time trying to fish a shell fragment from between our teeth.
Keep in mind, then, before offering your cat a popcorn flake, to examine it for any potential obstruction or kernel remainder. Should your cat come upon an untended piece of popcorn on the couch or floor, keep a close watch to see whether the cat experiences any special discomfort. If you clean your cat’s teeth at home, keep a finger brush within easy reach, and make sure there’s a water dish handy if the cat has any problems swallowing.
The Popcorn Board, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the cause of popcorn in the United States, observes Jan. 19 each year as National Popcorn Day. While, according to its own site, the organization is uncertain of the rationale for the date, and when the tradition began, I’m sure many of us don’t require a specific occasion to enjoy a bucket of delicious popcorn.
As for our cats, they rarely need a reason to poke their noses into whatever we’re doing as we lounge around our homes. It’s worthwhile, then, to keep our cats and their digestive habits in mind when we indulge in popcorn, or any other unusual — for cats — snack treats. If it’s air-popped and free of spicy, sweet, or potentially toxic additives, and a couple of kernels fall under the watchful eye of a nearby cat, then you and your cat can rest easy.
Learn more about cat nutrition with Catster: