Cats are notoriously fussy eaters so what does it mean when they develop a taste for something really odd, like wool or rubber bands? This is so ‘not normal’ that it has a name: Pica
PICA: A craving or abnormal appetite for non-food substances
Indeed pica in cats is an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but before labelling the problem as purely down to odd behaviour, it’s important to rule out medical triggers of pica.
Why Does Pica Happen?
In truth, even the experts are left guessing as to exactly why pica happens. There may be some deep subconscious drive to pick things up and chew them, in a similar way that kittens learn about their world by exploring with their mouth. Expanding on this, there are various explanations as to why cats would develop a taste for non-nutritious objects.
- Persistent kittenish behaviour: The Peter Pan of the cat world, a cat that grows up – but not out – of their kittenish habits.
- A mechanism for coping with stress: In a similar way to a child sucking their thumb, chewing on non-food items may be a release from stress.
- Accidentally trained: If the cat guardian shouts at their cat for eating wool, the cat may read this attention as rewarding the behaviour, and be encouraged rather than discouraged. This is especially true if a game of chase ensues in order to get the offending object out of the cat’s mouth. Who doesn’t love a game of chase?
- Genetic programming: The Oriental breeds, such as wool-sucking Siamese, are notorious for pica, because of a hereditary factor.
- Medical problems: A health problem may lead to a deficiency in a particular nutrient which prompts the cat to try weird and wonderful ways to find some.
As to the strange things cats eat this includes cotton, wool, synthetic material, plastic, rubber, paper, cardboard, baby bottle teats, string, thread, electrical cords, wallpaper. . . the list goes on.
Streets ahead in the popularity stakes for pica are. . . wool! Amongst feline patients referred to behaviourists for pica, 93% were addicted to wool.
Why Worry about Pica?
The reasons to worry about pica are that (1) the cat eats and swallows something that causes a bowel blockage and (2) the pica is a clue the cat has a medical problem.
By the very nature of the condition, they eat non-food items, which in turn mean they aren’t digestible. If a large lump of wool gets stuck in the intestine, it acts like a cork in a bottle with some very serious consequences.
And even if the cat doesn’t get a bowel obstruction, the cat guardian needs to take notice of their cat’s behaviour in case the pica is a cry for help because the cat has a health issue that needs treatment.
Medical Conditions that Cause Pica
Mother Nature is a wonderful thing. When the body is out of balance, she does her best to correct things. Even simple things like dehydration can cause a shift in electrolyte levels in the blood, which in some cases triggers pica.
To illustrate just how many conditions are linked to pica, let’s take a look at some examples.
- Abnormal loss of nutrients from the body:
- Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (a lack of certain digestive enzymes)
- Protein leaking through the kidneys
- Gut disturbances
- Diarrhoea (and all its causes such as parasites, dietary allergy, infections)
- Hormone imbalances:
- Overactive thyroid glands
It’s important your vet runs diagnostic tests to try and pinpoint any medical triggers for pica, because correcting that problem should sort out the pica. However, if after blood tests and faecal analysis the cat is given a clean bill of health, then her pica may well be behavioural.
Coping with Pica of Behavioural Origin
When you have a cat with pica you may constantly worry she’ll swallow something and hurt herself. However, resist the urge to tell her off as this may only make matters worse.
Also, experts advise us not remove the object of her pica (such as a woolly jumper) without giving her a safe alternative to chew. This is because she still has that need to chew, and will seek out a substitute which may be even less safe! For the wool-sucking Siamese, behavioural experts suggest the “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach by providing a sheepskin rug specifically to suck on.
So do you just have to live with pica or can you do something about it?
Having already said no-ones sure why cats turn to pica, what’s fairly certain is that stress makes it worse. Therefore it’s helpful to provide the cat with a sense of security born out of regular routine. Try to feed, groom, and play with your cat at set times, so the cat can anticipate what to expect, which is hugely reassuring to a cat.
Make sure the home is a peaceful place so avoid loud music, shouting, and other things the cat finds unsettling. This also includes sources of stress such as seeing stray cats through the window. Think up ways to eliminate such trigger factors, for example putting a frosted-etching overlay on the window pane.
A cat with a rich and interesting environment has less need to look for distractions. Make sure your cat has an outlet for natural activities such as climbing and scratching, by providing tall cat towers to climb and claw.
Play regularly with the cat and use puzzle feeders so the cat gets mental stimulation from daily activities such as eating.
Providing a safe alternative to chew is a neat answer for many cats with pica. Try sourcing cat-safe dental chews or toys.
And finally, for the cat with a deeply ingrained OCD pica problem, your vet is able to prescribe psychoactive medications to help ease their compulsion. Whilst you may not feel happy about your cat taking pharmaceuticals, it is perhaps a safer option than risking her swallowing something dangerous and ending up in surgery to remove it.
Have you ever had a cat with pica? What strange non-food things does your cat eat?