It’s easy to wrap your head around a cat that wants to eat some stinky tuna, munch on a little catnip, or even chew on your hair a little bit.
But things get very confusing when cats start to eat things like hair ties, parts of towels, or huge chunks of cardboard. Not only can this be frustrating but it can also be extremely dangerous for your cat as these items can easily get lodged in your cat’s intestines and require surgical removal.
But this weird behavior actually has a name and it’s not just your cat that can suffer from it.
It’s called pica and it can affect a variety of species- including humans.
What Is Pica?
Dr. Karen Sueda defines pica as “the act of eating non-food items…Common targets include yarn or string, fabric, wool, phone or electric cords, and plants. Any object may be a potential target, however.” Part of the problem with pica is that there are many reasons why a cat would chew on non-food items and it doesn’t indicate pica. Or at least not a severity of pica that a pet owner would need to be concerned with. Many cats are well known for a love of chewing cardboard.
Cats that are weaned at a very young age have been shown to have a strong drive to nurse as an adult. That means suckling on things like soft blankets, stuffed animals, or even your ears. Dr. Nick Dodman, Director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, describes this behavior as “Comfort nursing (running to mom for a couple of quick sucks even when the milk bar is dry).” Dr. Dodman goes on to say that this is actually normal kitten behavior for kittens up to 6 months of age but if this natural progression is disrupted (as is often the case) the kitten will start nursing on anything that remotely looks or feels like mom.
That means everything from their littermates to a soft blanket or ever themselves! For a personal example, I can tell you that I’ve had my cat Debbie since she was two weeks old. I bottle fed her but she certainly had a different kittenhood as compared to most cats and spent the first year of life suckling on just about anything she could find…including her thumb! That’s right, Debbie is a polydactyl cat with very prominent thumbs!
But does that represent pica?
No, because there’s a big difference between chewing, suckling, and actually eating. The actual consumption of non-food items is what represents pica and that’s where the trouble starts.
The Dangers of Pica In Cats
Pica in cats is a real danger. Though relatively uncommon, if your cat is showing signs of pica it’s important to remove the targeted items and consult with your veterinarian immediately.
I can tell you that over a decade in the veterinary industry at one of the largest shelters in the west I ran into less than 10 cats that were true pica cases. One of these cats was focused on chewing electrical cords. She ended up with some pretty bad burns in her mouth after biting into a live wire. It took several months in foster care for her to get nursed back to health and needless to say she was on a soft food diet.
Another cat was obsessed with eating hair ties, which is a common target for cats suffering from pica. This cat has more than 35 hair ties in his stomach which had to be surgically removed. I can’t imagine how uncomfortable that little cat felt with all those hair ties in his tummy. Luckily for him, the little metal piece on this particular brand of hair tie was visible on x-ray which means we were able to quickly identify what was going on.
However, many pica cats like to chew on towels, blankets, and other types of cloth that isn’t as easy to visualize on x-ray. Then it falls on diligent cat owners to make sure they notice when their cat is showing pica behaviors.
How Common Is Pica In Cats?
According to Dr. Arnold Plotnick, a feline specialist in New York, pica “accounts for approximately 2.5% of abnormal behaviors in the domestic cat.” So overall it’s a pretty uncommon condition. There’s also the issue of making a distinction between chewing and suckling behavior and the actual ingestion of non-food items.
When Does Pica In Cats Start?
Pica (in some form or another) often starts in kittenhood but most cats grow out of it after 6 months. Again, it’s important to make a distinction between suckling and chewing as compared to actually eating. Many cats will suckle as a kitten but most grow out of it by 6 months of age. However, if cats suffer a traumatic event or high levels of stress they may turn to suckle behavior as a coping mechanism. This could eventually turn into pica.
What Causes Pica in Cats?
Not only does pica look different in each cat (in terms of what they try to eat) but the exact cause of it is also unclear. According to Dr. Sueda, “no one knows exactly why some cats exhibit pica behavior.” Pica has been associated with a long of other diseases so it’s difficult to pin it down to just one cause. But here are some of the most causes that veterinarians look for.
Anemia has been known to cause pica in cats. On his website, Dr. Plotnick goes into detail on the case of an 8-month old cat named Tom who began eating his litter. Eventually, Tom started licking metallic spoons as well. After some bloodwork was done, Tom the cat was found to severely anemic. Dr. Plotnick was able to get Tom healthy again and once his anemia was gone so was his pica. You can read the full story here.
A lack of certain vitamins and minerals may lead to pica in cats. Bloodwork can quickly reveal these issues so as always consult with your veterinarian as soon as you suspect or see any signs of pica in cats.
Some cats may be more likely to chew, suckle, or ingest non-food items due to their genetic disposition. Dr. Alice Moon-Fanelli actually found that “Oriental breeds, such as Siamese and Birman cats, are more prone to wool-sucking.” But it doesn’t just have to be a specific breed. This genetic predisposition can be passed along to individual cats as well.
Some cats may eat non-food items because they find it entertaining or interesting. I’ve seen plenty of kitten nibble on litter as they explore the world around them and some cats may pick up this habit early on and never drop it.
Other cats may have an obsession with and a compulsion to eat non-food items that aren’t related to any specific external cause and instead is associated with a mental abnormality.
Feline Leukemia and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus
Feline Leukemia (FELV) and Feline Immunodeficient Virus (FIV) have both been associated with pica.
How Can You Treat Pica In Cats?
Any treatment of pica should always start with your veterinarian. I’ve already talked about how confusing pica is and how there’s no one clear cause. That being said, here are a few things your veterinarian may discuss with your after any specific medical cause has been ruled out.
Remove Target Items
You’ll need to start by removing whatever items your cat is trying to eat. Typically this easier said than done as some pica cats are going after just about everything. It can also be extremely difficult to actually hide all cords or clothing for example. But barring any medical issues, removing any items that your cat is trying to ingest is one of the most important things you can do to help manage this condition.
When it comes to cords, cord covers (like this one on Amazon) are going to be your best bet. It may also be a good idea to designate a specific room of your house as cat-free just in case your cat is targeting items that you simply can’t get rid of or protect any other way.
Redirect Your Cat’s Behavior
It’s important to remember that simply telling your cat to stop chewing on things isn’t going to change anything about how bad they want to chew. It’s oftentimes more effective to give your cat something safe and more appropriate to chew on and in the case pica something they can’t ingest. Or something that’s actually safe for them to ingest.
One of my favorite options is cat grass. You can pick up the same one I use from Amazon by clicking here. Even though my cat doesn’t suffer from pica she still loves a good chomp on the cat-safe cat grass. Other great options are food dispensing toys but be sure to avoid any that are too small or have small points- I like this one from Catit (Amazon link).
Some cats chew and eventually eat non-food items just out of boredom. A food dispenser will also help with this but it’s important to aside time for regular play. Provide plenty of fun interactive toys (I like the ones that make noise) while being careful not to select anything that your cat might try to eat. I also always recommend Da Bird cat toy as I haven’t met a cat yet that can resist it!
According to Dr. Sueda, fiber may help satisfy your cat’s craving to eat more while maintaining healthy body weight. That’s because fiber contains fewer calories while still making your cat feel full. Essentially, you’re redirecting your cat’s cravings to food but keeping fiber content high in order to prevent fat gain.
Use A Deterrent
There are special sprays that you can spray on items to make it unpleasant for your cat to chew on. These products completely pet friendly and safe for your cats and can make pica felines think twice about chowing down. One of the most popular ones is bitter apple spray which you can see here on Amazon. This product is often used in the veterinary field to discourage cats and dogs from chewing on their bandages.
In some cases, drugs to relax your cat may be suggested as the best option. Especially if your cat is showing signs of obsession or compulsion.
Consult A Professional Feline Behavioralist
After your veterinarian has ruled out medical conditions, it may be time to consult a professional feline behavioralist for support. If you work with someone locally (which is what I’d recommend) they can evaluate your space in person and help you come up with a custom plan based on your individual cat’s pica problems. The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants has a directory you can use to find a certified feline expert.
Pica is definitely one of the more unusual conditions for cats and not one you hear a lot about. For cat owners, it can one of the most stressful and worrisome conditions you can deal with but luckily it’s relatively uncommon. As I’ve already mentioned, if you believe your cat is showing signs of pica you should immediately consult a veterinarian.