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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?
Our little nine month old ‘bottle fed’ baby will chew up anything she can get her paws on but really has an obsession with straws. She was prescribed Prozac about three months ago & we noticed a change for the better after the first month but now she’s back to chewing anything and everything all over again. Jackson Galaxy has some ‘holistic solutions’ on his website that also seem to help.
Sweet Purrfections says
I’ve often wondered if Truffle has pica because she loves to chew on plastic and has swallowed it a couple of times and almost had a blockage. I need to talk to her vet about this.
Bryn Nowell says
I knew that humans could exhibit these symptoms, I didn’t realize that cats could. This is a great and very informative article. I’m sure pet parents who encounter this situation will be looking for valuable resources to help come up with answers, so I’m glad you’ve shared this so they have a place to come for help!
I have never personally had a cat with Pica, but my mother-in-law did. Her Siamese cat, Bailey, liked to suck on his own tail. The end of his tail was always wet because of this behavior. She took him to the veterinarian who told her that it was a behavior he would likely have all of his life (he was older when she adopted him). The veterinarian was right.
Lola The Rescued Cat says
I have pica. I eat tape and plastic, and she has to be careful with it. I even had to go to the vet once, but luckily, I was OK. Mommy knows a lot about pica in humans – she works with people with severe pica – but didn’t know a lot about it in humans. Great info.
molly Mednikow says
A friend’s dog has PICA and I never understood. I felt badly that she couldn’t leave him alone free in the house. I never thought of it as being an OCD behavior! Thanks for the well-researched post.
My sister’s Pug was notorious for eating dirt and clay. She had to have surgery for an intestinal blockage, and after that, she wasn’t allowed alone in the backyard. We don’t know the cause of her pica.
Thankfully, we haven’t had any cats with Pica. Thank you for this wonderful post all about it, though … it’s fascinating and scary at the same time, but good for people who have cats with it to have this information.
Talent Hounds says
Luckily nome of my cats have ever actually eaten odd things. They may have scratched or chewed on furniture. I know several friends whose dogs have eaten socks and needed surgery. My own have chewed on the furniture or even drywall when bored or left alone.
The Daily Pip says
My father’s cat just recently tried to eat a paper receipt. Fortunately, she only ate a bit for it and then threw it up – no blockages. I am going to forward this post to him. I had wondered if it were stressed related – but now wondering if she should have her thyroid checked as she is slightly older.
Cathy Armato says
My cat used to suck on wooly things. I didn’t know about Pica back then so I didn’t really address it. It’s interesting about it possibly being behavioral and stress related.
Dash Kitten says
Pica is something that obviously needs care to either control or cure. Our Sienna carries about things from my workroom after we go to bed. Only then and only since Peanut passed away. We think the two are related BUT Sienna doesn’t eat things, just carries them.
Tenacious Little Terrier says
We sometimes would wonder if our foster dog had pica or if he really just liked putting strange objects in his mouth!
Jana Rade says
Everything that happens has a reason. It is important to always look for one.
Debbie Bailey says
Great tips! Lots of these can be applied to dogs as well. Boredom and anxiety especially can have nasty repercussions. Great article!
Wow I learned so much here in this article and not JUST about PICA! We have HUGE windows for example, floor to ceiling type. I need to pay more attention to if this is stressing my cats out or not. I do not THINK that it is because they seem to love calmly watching the squirrels each morning. It is cute, almost as if they are watching television, but maybe I am missing some warning signs! I worried at one time if one of our cats had PICA but she just loves “chasing” and catching my hair ties. I DO watch out to make sure she is not actually trying to eat them. Bowel obstruction is a concern, but she just likes us to acknowledge she “caught” the hair tie, then we pick it up. Well I could go on but our Lyla has to go out and potty now … Have a great weekend!
Kitty Cat Chronicles says
Sampson is our foreign-object chewer (and neck suckler). Hand towels, paper towels, napkins, clothes… BUT he only chews on them if they have food or something tasty on them. So his issue isn’t medical, thank goodness. Thanks for this great info though. I can definitely see how some people would write pica behavior off as odd or funny, not realizing there could be an underlying medical issue.
Excellent post and important to call attention to. Although none of my cats had Pica, I can’t say some of them didn’t eat things they shouldn’t have – in their case it was bratty behaviour. One of my cats used to liked to eat styrofoam. I had some in the house for a couple of days, because I hadn’t unpacked the box fully. I never had a cat that ate styrofoam so didn’t think about leaving it in an open room. Well, I noticed my cat not feeling well, then a chunk of foam missing and off we ran to the vet. Luckily he didn’t need surgery so now I’m even more super careful.
Cosmo was exhibiting this behavior for a while. Destroyed a few areas of carpet while he was going through this; when I changed his diet and started adding more fresh food, he stopped and he’s been doing great ever since.
Cody-Cat Chat (@CatChatCaren) says
Cody only eats (I should say “chews on”) things when he isn’t being given food or treats when he THINKS he should be. He doesn’t actually swallow what he chews on, he chews because he is angry. I hide plastic bags from the store (the Vet said that nowadays the reason so many cats are attracted to plastic grocery bags is because they are now made with corn syrup). Cody will chew on paper, the leaves on his cat tree, ANYTHING if he isn’t being fed when he wants to be. It is the equivalent of a tantrum with him.
My human has never had that problem with any of her cats, but it’s not all that uncommon.