In all the surveys, we asked specific questions about the dog's diet. There was no indication that dogs fed primarily table
scraps or raw food were more prone to grass eating than those on a commercial, nutritionally balanced diet. Nor was there
any indication that dogs receiving less fiber in their diets tended to eat plants more than those getting more fiber.
So contrary to the common perception that grass eating is associated with observable signs of illness and vomiting, we found
that grass eating is a common behavior in normal dogs unrelated to illness and that dogs do not regularly vomit afterward.
Vomiting seems to be incidental to, rather than caused by, plant eating.
WHAT ABOUT CATS?
In an ongoing study with my colleagues Drs. Sueda, Melissa Bain, and Gretel de la Riva, preliminary findings suggest that
plant eating is less common in cats than in dogs. As in dogs, cats typically do not appear to be ill before eating plants
nor do they regularly vomit afterward. Our preliminary data suggest that cats eat more nongrass plants than do dogs.
AN ETHOLOGIC EXPLANATION: HERBAL PROPHYLAXIS
Our current hypothesis is that plant eating is a common behavior that usually occurs in normal dogs and cats. It is generally
unassociated with illness or a dietary deficiency but reflects an innate predisposition inherited from wild canid and felid
ancestors. More studies are needed, but plant eating likely serves a biological purpose. One explanation is that plant eating
played a role in the ongoing purging of intestinal parasites (nematodes) in wild canid and felid ancestors (that were always
exposed to intestinal parasites). As observed in wild chimpanzees, which eat whole leaves from a variety of plants, the plant
material passes through the intestinal tract, increasing intestinal motility and wrapping around worms and thereby purging
the tract of intestinal nematodes.8,9 In our study, younger animals were observed to eat plants more frequently than did older animals.7 Perhaps young animals eat plants more often because they are less immune to intestinal parasites and are actively growing,
thus nutritional stress could be more costly than in adults.
Whether intestinal parasites in wild ancestors of domestic cats were less prevalent than in wild ancestors of domestic dogs
is an open question. Certainly cats are more fastidious about making their feces, a major source of intestinal infestations,
less available for incidental ingestion.
When owners ask about their pets' tendency to consume plants, let them know that their pets are fairly typical—most dogs and
cats consume some plant material. In addition, plant consumption is not usually associated with gastrointestinal illness but
instead may be a trait inherited from their wild ancestors. Advise owners to keep their grass-eating dogs and cats away from
chemically treated lawns and toxic plants.
Benjamin L. Hart, DVM, PhD, DACVB
Department of Anatomy, Physiology and Cell Biology
School of Veterinary Medicine
University of California
Davis, CA 95616
Coauthor of Canine and Feline Behavior Therapy, 2nd edition, Blackwell Press 2006.
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