‘Flying Treats’: Can Dogs and Cats Snack Safely on Cicadas?

Of course you’re anxious.

Your sweet, admittedly not overbright, four-legged pandemic pal is enamored with the horror movie of the season: relentless hordes of fat and sassy cicadas.

Clattering and slow-moving, the 2021 Brood X swarmageddon taunts cats and dogs, who seem incapable of affecting diffidence. In recent weeks, many pets have obsessively been lunging and swatting. Then, gulping.

Fearful owners are rushing to veterinarians and animal poison control centers, to say nothing of Dr. Google. Can cicada exoskeletons pierce intestinal linings? Is cicada fungus toxic to dogs?

The answers are no and no.

Christine Klippen, an emergency veterinarian at Friendship Hospital for Animals in Washington, a city currently held captive by cicadas, sounded a tad weary.

“No, eating a cicada won’t make a dog or cat sick,” Dr. Klippen said.

Large areas in 15 states, mostly from the Mid-Atlantic, stretching west to Ohio, are now thrumming with billions of Brood Xers, which have burst forth after a 17-year gestation, full of so much pent-up reproductive energy that last week they invaded a White House press corps charter plane, delaying a flight for hours. And in a pandemic year during which, according to a survey by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, one in five American households adopted dogs and cats, rookie pet owners are primed to swallow cicada myths whole.

After all, they have not had years of exposure to the God-awful things that pets routinely snarf down.

More good news: If you haven’t seen or heard Brood X cicadas yet, you’re unlikely to. John Cooley, a cicada researcher and expert in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut, said that by now, they had all emerged and that by the Fourth of July, their newborns would have hatched and burrowed.

“If it’s cold and miserable like it’s been in Maryland, that prolongs things,” Dr. Cooley, who maps sightings, said. “Sunny, hot weather burns them out.”

To dogs and cats, cicadas look like “big flying treats,” as Dr. Klippen says. But, she adds, unless an animal has a rare allergy to chitin, the exoskeleton material, the bugs are not toxic. That includes a fungus that has been seen on these periodical cicadas, which can affect the bugs but not the snackers.

“Most pets who ingest a few cicadas will only develop mild stomach upset,” said Tina Wismer, a veterinarian who is a senior director at the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center in Urbana, Ill. Some cats and dogs have bellies so sensitive, she added, that they can even have a reaction to a new kibble. Most cicada-related calls to the poison center, she said, involve dogs vomiting up the exoskeletons.

The wings are crunchy “but no more than dry dog food,” observed Ann Hohenhaus, a veterinary oncologist at the Animal Medical Center in New York.

She and others dismissed the chatter about cicada shells slicing through intestinal walls. “Dogs will eat bones and feel sick but even shards don’t poke through the intestines,” she said. “But cicada shells are unknown to us, so we have decided we should worry about them.”

Because dogs spend more time outdoors than cats, calls about feline cicada ingestion are rare. But cats do enjoy the occasional cicada amuse-bouche.

“Outdoor cats don’t like static food,” Dr. Hohenaus said. “If something is alive and moving, they will go for it. People worry that because cats have small digestive tracts, the cicada will get stuck, but a cat can eat a whole mouse. It will digest the cicada just fine.”

The operative word here is “few.” Consuming too much of anything, including cicadas, can lead to lethargy, diarrhea and vomiting, say veterinarians as well as basic common sense.

Learn More About Cicadas

Here comes Brood X. Species of periodical cicadas will emerge in places all over the eastern part of the United States in the coming weeks. Here’s what you should know about our insect visitors making their once-in-every-17-year appearance.

    • Answers to common questions: Where will the cicadas be? When will you see them? And what the heck are they doing?
    • Where they have disappeared: On Long Island in New York and in other locations, Brood X may have vanished forever.
    • Test yourself: Seventeen years is a lot to catch up on for Brood X. Test your memory of what was happening in our world when they last appeared in 2004.
    • Listen to their music: Cicadas are loud and noisy. But if you know how to listen, you’ll hear the music they make, a contributor writes in this guest essay.

“Dogs eat lots of stuff — they will paw open a pantry and eat five pounds of dog food before owners catch them,” Dr. Hohenhaus said. “One dog puked up a shark toy. So if you have a dog who goes to the country for the weekend and eats horse poop, he’ll have diarrhea on Monday morning.”

As for those pets who have hoovered up cicadas and landed in the vet E.R., she said, cause and effect are not necessarily obvious. “I don’t know if the cicada shells made the dog sick or it was the Kleenexes and trash the dog ate out of the bathroom basket.”

Cicadas can, however, incite some cats and especially dogs to binge. (Think potato chips: Can you eat just one?)

“Because cicadas are so easy to catch, some animals are going to town eating them,” said Dr. Klippen, who sees perhaps a handful of dogs a week for this reason. The risks are not from the bugs, she said, but from dehydration related to vomiting and diarrhea, or from having absorbed pesticide sprayed on the cicadas.

For dogs who can’t quit cicadas, “consider a basket muzzle,” Dr. Klippen said. “It’s beneficial and doesn’t prevent dogs from panting and drinking.”

Also try walking your dog at dawn and dusk, Dr. Wismer advised, when cicadas are least active. Since cicadas are found in and around mature trees, avoid routes that include them.

The heebie-jeebies over pets and cicadas springs mostly from the alignment of several factors. There’s the once-in-nearly-two-decades emergence of the bugs. And the heightened attachment and overprotectiveness that owners developed toward their pets in the past year during lockdown. Moreover, veterinarians said, people’s concerns are being revved by the internet and, er, the news media.

“But basically, it’s something for us to talk about other than the coronavirus,” Dr. Klippen said.

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