Pica: When Cats Eat Strange Things

cat_chewing

Pica is the term used when cats eat non-food items. Most commonly associated with “wool-sucking,” a behavior where cats suck or chew on woolen, cotton or synthetic cloth, this compulsive disorder can progress to true pica where cats chew on and sometimes ingest anything from wood to litter to plastic grocery bags.

The cause of pica is unclear. Wool sucking is believed to be displaced nursing behavior and is sometimes observed in cats who were weaned too suddenly or too young when they were kittens. Most cats outgrow this behavior as they age, but in some, it becomes a lifelong habit.

Why pica can be dangerous

As long as a cat only sucks or chews on the offending substrate, pica in itself is not a threat to your cat’s health, but even as simply an obsessive compulsive disorder, it affects the quality of life of your cat. As humans who are plagued with OCD’s can attest, nobody chooses to indulge in that type of behavior. However, when cats actually ingest the things they suck or chew on, it can lead to life-threatening intestinal obstructions that may require emergency surgery.

Causes of pica

Nobody knows for sure what causes pica. It has been associated with a number of medical conditions, ranging from nutritional deficiencies to endocrine disorders to brain tumors. The disorder seems to be more prevalent in oriental breeds. Genetics and temperament may also play a role. Stress has been identified as a possible risk factor, and for a cat, stress can mean anything from changes in the household to boredom.

Diagnosis

Your veterinarian will want to do a thorough medical exam, including bloodwork, to rule out any medical causes.

Treatment

If there is an underlying medical condition, addressing the problem may provide a cure. If pica is caused by behavioral factors, the following behavior modifications may help:

  • Remove temptation: placing the items your cat likes to chew on out of reach is often the easiest solution. If your cat likes to chew on clothing, keep it in a hamper and make sure closet doors are firmly closed. If you cat chews on plants, remove them. Keep plastic bags out of reach.
  • Make targeted items unattractive: use double-sided tape or spray on products that taste bitter but are safe for cats, such as Bitter Yuck.
  • Provide acceptable alternatives for chewing: provide catnip filled chew toys, cat grass or other kitty greens.
  • Structured playtime: spend 10-15 minutes, twice a day, playing with your cat. Use interactive wand toys such as the Da Bird, and really tire your cat out.
  • Environmental enrichment: provide cat trees and window perches so your cat can watch the world outside. Scratching posts and kitty tunnels provide distraction and mental and physical challenge.

When all of these fail, consult with a veterinary behaviorist. In some extreme cases, cats may benefit from psychoactive drugs.

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons

50 Comments on Pica: When Cats Eat Strange Things

  1. Tracey
    June 23, 2017 at 12:09 pm (4 months ago)

    My wisp eats hair and I suspect the plastic springs that she loves to plat with. She eats raw meat, with some fish oil supplement. She has a bad case of dandruff. I noticed the more she gets the fish oil the less she eats hair and other things.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      June 23, 2017 at 4:59 pm (4 months ago)

      That’s really interesting, Tracey, especially since one of the theories why cats are so drawn to plastic is that some plastics use fish oil in the manufacturing process. Maybe by getting the fish oil, she craves less plastic?

      Reply
  2. Cheryl
    July 5, 2016 at 8:03 pm (1 year ago)

    I have a terrible time with my cat Mako – he eats fabric. It’s one thing to keep clothes picked up off the floor. It’s another to be unable to have so much as a hand towel. I use bitter apple on things such as the edges of curtains and bedclothes, but there’s no way to do this with a dish towel or a face towel. Every time I take away or bitterize something he’ll be fine for a while, but after a few weeks he starts in on something that didn’t seem to appeal to him before (most recently, a bath mat). He doesn’t seem stressed. He has a playmate and he has playtime with me. He has all the standard cat amenities. The vet said he’s in great health. I don’t know what to do except to use paper towels and hope he grows out of it (he’s 2).

    Luckily he hasn’t gotten himself in real trouble yet. He mostly chews it into small pieces that pass through. One time he threw up dish towel. It’s very frustrating for both his sake and the sake of my household!

    His brother eats plastic grocery bags, but that’s much easier to keep contained.

    Reply
  3. Emma
    July 1, 2016 at 11:35 am (1 year ago)

    My cat must have this! Alley is part Abyssinian and chews/eats a lot of things. He is 15 years old. We’ve had him since he was six months old, at which time he was separated from his mom and siblings, so we know he wasn’t weaned early. This has been a life-long issue for him. He chews on plastic bags, rubbery shoes, strips of the wooden wall that he pulls off, hair ties, some jewelry, and the fabric on my bed’s box spring. I’ve even caught him with my nail file once or twice, and it makes my teeth hurt just thinking about it!

    He is very healthy and active. We do our best to keep everything he likes to chew away from him, but sometimes he manages to get a hold of them anyway (he’ll climb up on top of the fridge to get plastic bags if we put them up there). We are constantly buying cat and small dog chew toys for him, hoping to find something he likes, but he seems to have no interest in anything we tell him is okay to chew. The newest thing he chews is the box spring. He can’t even sleep with me anymore because he gets up and eats the fabric during the night. Luckily, he hasn’t discovered that the other beds also have box springs, so he leaves them alone (so far).

    I thought maybe he needed some fiber in his diet because he eats grain free canned and freeze dried raw food, which has eliminated the urinary blockages he used to get years ago. I tried adding pumpkin to his food and offering him cat grass (which he wouldn’t eat!), but it didn’t help.

    It’s frustrating, but I’m thankful it hasn’t caused him any health problem so far (knock on wood). He’s such a good cat otherwise! My mom is currently sick, and he’s in nurse-mode, hardly letting her out of his sight. I guess it’s just part of what makes him unique!

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      July 2, 2016 at 5:34 am (1 year ago)

      That’s one of the most extreme cases of Pica I’ve ever heard about, Emma! It’s a good thing you’re so vigilant.

      Reply
  4. Lisa
    February 28, 2015 at 11:34 pm (3 years ago)

    Yes, I too am seeing this in an older female cat (going on 16) when I changed the diet for all of my cats, and switched to a grain-free food. She has a brother, and he drinks a lot of water, which causes me to think his kidneys aren’t as efficient as they used to be. Since renal failure is probably the number one reason death in older cats, I have to keep this in mind when I do see them urinating more and drinking more, and as I said, my female cat’s recent pica problem. She will go outside and oftentimes I see her licking dirt, or licking the rusty concrete wire we use for tomato cages. I have since started sprinkling natural salt in her water source in case she needs an increase of electrolytes or minerals that tend to be decreased in pets with renal problems.

    As for some of the other responses her about eating certain materials such as garments or plastic, I would suspect that the chemicals in these materials, though they go unnoticed by our senses, can be alluring to our cats as they can mimic hormones or other chemicals that attract the feline’s sense of smell. My cats are indoor/outdoor and I have never seen this behavior other than the recent occurrence with my older female cat. I have recently started her on a urine-acidifier with methionine gel.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      March 1, 2015 at 7:18 am (3 years ago)

      I’m assuming you had your cat checked out by a vet before adding salt and a urine-acidifier, Lisa. As you probably know, increased thirst and urination can also be a sign of diabetes.

      Reply
  5. Meg
    October 17, 2014 at 7:15 am (3 years ago)

    Spitfire has starting chewing through my iphone cords again this week. There are other people in the house she is staying in (and she hasnt chewed their cords) so this go round Im saying that this is a way to tell me shes upset Ive left her with strangers and only there every third day for a visit. My friend she staying with have remarked she chews on the end of the wand toys. That when I pull out one of her bones on a string…they though that was a great idea. She seems healthy, but has always chewed more then other cats.

    Reply
  6. steph
    July 16, 2014 at 6:31 am (3 years ago)

    hi, i have a Original Apple Head Seal Point Simease ( he is so beautiful)

    He has a obession …….. he keeps eating my designer clothes !!! more specific my singlets and blouses. they are all made of Viscoe, Why is he doing this 🙁 he even hunts for it out of my cupboard

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      July 16, 2014 at 6:41 am (3 years ago)

      As is mentioned in the article, nobody really knows why cats do this, Steph. Since this can be dangerous for cats, I’d make sure that you put these particular pieces in a place he can’t get to.

      Reply
  7. Amanda
    July 8, 2014 at 7:02 am (3 years ago)

    My oldest cat, Bizkit, has an affinity for used dryer sheets. He used to snatch them and run away to eat them because he knew I’d take them away if I caught him. He’d even try to take them out of the garbage can when he thought I wasn’t paying attention. He would eat them and throw them up soon after–sometimes I wouldn’t even know until I found his puke. (Gross I know) I no longer use dryer sheets because of this, but every time I bring in laundry (although it’s been about 3 years since I’ve used dryer sheets) he comes running to dig through the basket looking for them. I asked the vet about it and she didn’t have an answer–she just said to make sure he didn’t eat any unused ones. He hasn’t, but I nixed them altogether. Not worth the risk for my big baby. Didn’t even think of pica as a possible cause! Lately, he’s been chewing on my curtains that kind of have a gauzy texture. Not sure what to do!

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      July 8, 2014 at 10:34 am (3 years ago)

      It sounds like he likes that gauzy texture, Amanda, since used dryer sheets are a little bit like thin curtains, too. Short of telling you to get rid of the curtains, I don’t know what to suggest.

      Reply
  8. Steven
    June 15, 2014 at 3:18 pm (3 years ago)

    Yesterday I had to make the heart-wrenching decision to put my cat to sleep after he ate a non-food item that obstructed his small intestine. This was the third instance of intestinal blockage that he had experienced since we had gotten him as a kitten only a year ago, and we had already spent a small fortune on treatments and surgery, as well as many hours spent trying to make sure that there was nothing around the house that would be tempting for him to eat. Nevertheless, he managed to find something.

    We could have gone into debt to pay for another round of surgery, but I just couldn’t rationalize it, since it wasn’t going to address the root cause of the problem, and we had no assurance that it just wasn’t going to happen all over again.

    I’m plagued with second thoughts, guilt, and regrets. He was my buddy, the sweetest, most trusting, tolerant and friendly little guy. I just feel sick. I’m so sorry Neptune, you deserved better.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      June 15, 2014 at 3:54 pm (3 years ago)

      I’m so sorry about Neptune, Steven. It had to have been a devastating decision to make. My heart goes out to you.

      Reply
  9. Nigel
    May 26, 2014 at 3:32 pm (3 years ago)

    My cat likes to eat cumin the spice and olives. I have searched the web and found no other cat who does the same. You can see him here http://youtu.be/1TEGI5F-qko.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      May 26, 2014 at 6:13 pm (3 years ago)

      That is definitely unusual, Nigel!

      Reply
    • Elizabeth
      July 27, 2015 at 10:45 am (2 years ago)

      Olives are actually not unheard of. They reportedly contain a substance similar to the one in catnip. I’ve heard of a good number of kitties liking olives, though I’ve never tried it out with mine – no olives in my house since I can’t stand them myself! 🙂

      Reply
      • Ingrid
        July 27, 2015 at 12:14 pm (2 years ago)

        I’m with you, Elizabeth – not a fan of olives, either, so I’ll never know whether Allegra and Ruby might like then. 🙂

        Reply
  10. Ruth
    November 11, 2012 at 9:37 pm (5 years ago)

    Two years ago when I brought home a 1 year old orange tabby cat from the local animal shelter I found he ate material of all sorts – wool, cotton, cashmere, polyester, rayon, string, etc. This included him eating cashmere sweaters, towels, blankets, blouses of all kind of materials, yoga pants, socks.

    Anyway, I switched his food to a low carbohydrate moist canned cat food and some low carb kibble and he stopped eating material/cloth items.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      November 12, 2012 at 7:31 am (5 years ago)

      That’s interesting that the pica stopped when you switched your cat to a better diet, Ruth. That would certainly support the theory that nutritional deficiencies may be behind this condition.

      Reply
  11. Sharon
    August 20, 2012 at 10:33 am (5 years ago)

    My cat chews all plugs that are plugged into the wall and also plastic bags. When I adopted him from the vet, he was only 6 weeks old but his mother had been taken away at birth due to a tragic accident (don’t know what happened exactly) but he had been fed by beaker. I put hot sauce all over the plugs but that did not work and then I tried bengay which did not work either.

    The bottom line is that I have had to resort to putting him in my bedroom all day with all plugs taken out of the wall and then he sleeps in a large kennel at night. I finally had to do this when the cable man refused to replace my cords (don’t blame him) but then I am trying desparately to save this cat.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      August 20, 2012 at 12:49 pm (5 years ago)

      Sounds like your little guy is a hardcore case, Sharon. You’ve probably already tried cable tubes? I’m guessing that he’d still be chewing on them, but at least he couldn’t actually chew through the cable and risk electrocuting himself.

      Reply
      • Jenn
        October 20, 2014 at 10:53 pm (3 years ago)

        Hi! My cat chews on all our cords too! Any more suggestions on this would be great. She was also weaned early ( orphaned so never had breastfeeding). She’s 4 and I can’t afford to replace things anymore. I’m desperate!!! We tried wrapping all thin cords in plumbing tubing and have noticed she not only still chews on that but also the think cords now!

        Reply
        • Ingrid
          October 21, 2014 at 6:12 am (3 years ago)

          Can you block off access to the area where the cords are, Jenn?

          Reply
  12. cairey
    May 29, 2012 at 11:07 pm (5 years ago)

    my bengal kitten will chomp on her litter…started with crystal litter then we switched to the new bb walnut pellets (cant get her to stop and we arent always around so at least it is natural). its a little scary and why we have yet to switch to a clumping litter. she chews my dvd boxes, my phone charger, and my previous bed frame which was metal/steelish.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      May 30, 2012 at 6:31 am (5 years ago)

      You’ve got a serious chewer on your hands, Cairey! Have you tried some of the dental chew toys for cats with your kitten?

      Reply
      • Cairey
        May 30, 2012 at 4:45 pm (5 years ago)

        Yep! Even tried freezing them which someone suggested previously. She’s just special so we make sure to monitor her when we are around to stop her from getting at it but I am afraid to do too much because I don’t want her to turn around and then not use her litter box, you know? It’s gotten better lately and I am hoping she is growing out of it but she’s still a baby so hopefully with time it completely stops.

        Reply
  13. Bopeeps
    May 22, 2012 at 12:08 am (5 years ago)

    When I first got Lucy, she started pulling up the carpet. I had to duct tape the carpet seams in my entire apartment. She did stop when I got little Rikki.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      May 22, 2012 at 12:16 pm (5 years ago)

      That’s interesting that Lucy stopped pulling up the carpet when you got Rikki, Diana. I’m guessing she did it because she was bored.

      Reply
      • Bopeeps
        May 22, 2012 at 1:58 pm (5 years ago)

        Right, that’s why I got her. Lucy just did not seem happy. She still exhibits some nutty behavior but I feel her buddy makes her more content and happy.

        Reply
  14. Meaghan
    May 21, 2012 at 8:38 pm (5 years ago)

    Good article!
    I knew about Pica in humans, and have joked for ages that my Bella [technically just a moggie, but possibly part Maine Coon] had pica. I hadn’t known it was actually diagnosed in cats.
    Bella compuslively eats every piece of lint she sees, chews on vinyl-like plastic [anything rubbery and bendy] and has, in the past, eaten clothing… She also does the wool sucking. She used to do that to my pillow, but I bought her a special blanket to use, and that keeps her from destroying other things. She never eats her blankie. Just sucks on it while kneading.

    I’m not too worried about the wool sucking, but the eating of lint and plastic can’t be good for her.
    I tried the kitty kong chew toy with her, but she had no interest… any recommendations for things for her to chew?

    Reply
  15. Danielle
    May 21, 2012 at 7:10 pm (5 years ago)

    Thank you Ingrid. I was devastated! I never thought a cat would eat avocado, so I would cut it in half and leave it on the counter, then I saw that somebody had been noshing on it, but at that point I had 14 cats, so until Lila was caught in the act, I never knew. She was acting strange at feeding time one night, not her usual on the counter self and was very lethargic. I rushed her to the emergency clinic and by the time I got home, there was a call that she was not doing well and by the time I called back, she was gone. RIP Wee WiWa!

    I think I have heard of other cats licking ashtrays, but I witnessed Slick doing it and it did it more than once. He was quite the character!

    Reply
  16. Danielle
    May 21, 2012 at 6:32 pm (5 years ago)

    Over the years I have had cats that ate or gnawed on the strangest things. Slick licked ashtrays!!! (He lived to be 20!) He also LOVED lady fingers, I had to hide them in the cupboard or he would steal them. Bomber loves lettuce…there could be a package of meat on the counter and lettuce and he would go for the greens. Leon loved marble pound cake. Cub chews plastic, have to keep anything plastic away from him. Mister loves eggplant, apple turnovers, cookies…

    Fortunately I never had medical issues, although Lila ate avocado…which I found out was poisonous to cats. I did not feed it to her, she would sneak onto the counter and eat it. She died from unknown causes but I suspect it was from the avocado…

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      May 21, 2012 at 6:41 pm (5 years ago)

      I think this is the first time I’ve ever heard of a cat licking ashtrays, Danielle! I’m so sorry about your Lila.

      Reply
  17. Layla Morgan Wilde
    May 21, 2012 at 5:18 pm (5 years ago)

    Ingrid, great concise article. I first learned about pica and Siamese connection 16 years ago because of Merlin’s fixation on wool socks or gloves which he thankfully outgrew.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      May 21, 2012 at 5:35 pm (5 years ago)

      Good to know that some cats outgrow pica, Layla.

      Reply
  18. Erica McNally
    May 21, 2012 at 1:14 pm (5 years ago)

    My cat Smurf has been “wool sucking” since I found him. I once tried to take away the blanket he sucks on as this article suggests. He then began sucking on his housemates (the other two cats) who found this okay for the first couple licks but then were quite annoyed. Really who wants a big wet spot on their forehead? I eventually had to give back to blanket to ease the tension in the household. I’m unsure what else to do. My vet does not seem concerned.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      May 21, 2012 at 5:35 pm (5 years ago)

      As long as he only sucks on the blanket and doesn’t actually ingest it, it’s probably okay, Erica. You could try substituting kitty chew toys and see if that works.

      Reply
  19. Bonnie
    May 21, 2012 at 1:11 pm (5 years ago)

    I have a Ragdoll cat who seeks out pieces of like, packaging tape, plastic wrappers on straws, whatever soft, flexible plastic he can find, and swallows it. We have found puke piles with a wod of tape in it, like it had gotten shapped like his throat and then come out. It’s really disturbing and hard to counteract, as I get lots of packages for my work with tape holding them closed. So weird.

    I also have another cat who does the sucking thing, he sucks on blankets. He also tries to nurse on my hands and wrists, so I think he was for sure taken from his mom too soon!

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      May 21, 2012 at 5:34 pm (5 years ago)

      Bonnie, that’s really worrisome that your Ragdoll is so fixated on tape. I can see how you have to be extra careful!

      Reply
    • Joanna
      May 21, 2012 at 7:23 pm (5 years ago)

      My cat eats tape too! He LOVES clear packing tape. He also really enjoys #4 plastic (the stretchy kind that things in the mail tend to be wrapped in). He’ll also eat Mylar (so much for those stupid shiny, crinkly cat toys) and ribbon. My husband and I are extremely careful about allowing any of these items into the house. Boxes are opened immediately and put outside in the recycling bin. Ribbon and tape are kept in drawers and cabinets he cannot access. He’s a healthy, relatively young guy on a good diet; I doubt he’s nutritionally deficient. I think he’s just strange!

      Reply
    • Debbielynn
      May 21, 2012 at 7:41 pm (5 years ago)

      I have 2 ragdolls /Mainecoons and I think it might be a trait for them plus my older Ragdoll (Rosie) was weened to early because her mother died at an early age. She and her daughter and my sister’s Mainecoon does the same (sucks on plastic bags) and my other one will eat whatever she can find and plays with tape and eat it too… Has thrown up so many times….

      I hope we all can help our kitties!

      Reply
      • Ingrid
        May 21, 2012 at 7:50 pm (5 years ago)

        Maybe Ragdolls and Maine Coons need to be added to the list of breeds that are predisposed to pica!

        Reply
  20. Regina
    May 21, 2012 at 1:10 pm (5 years ago)

    My cat George likes to chew on plastic.We try to keep plastic bags away from him.He also will chew on other plastic and we have chased him down to take it from him!! I never thought that it might be pica.Ive heard of that in humans but not cats!

    Reply
  21. Ingrid
    May 21, 2012 at 9:31 am (5 years ago)

    Bernadette and Caren, there a theory that some plastic manufacturers use fish oil and/or animal digest in making their products. I can’t find anything to substantiate it, but if it’s true, it would make sense that so many cats seem to be drawn to plastic.

    Allegra loves to chew on anything plastic, and also rubber, especially rubber flip flops. I have quite a few pairs with interesting kitty stencil patterns on them…

    Reply
    • Bernadette
      May 21, 2012 at 9:45 am (5 years ago)

      That’s interesting! I knew corn was in the mix and sometimes they like that, but didn’t know about fish oil. And it’s not all plastic, but often the clamshell packaging that they chew on.

      I remember Allegra’s flip-flop project!

      Reply
  22. Caren Gittleman
    May 21, 2012 at 9:24 am (5 years ago)

    the only thing that Cody chews on is plastic bags (but he doesn’t actually chew them up and eat them). My vet explained that by saying there is corn syrup (I believe it is that) in the bags that makes them attractive to cats.

    Cody will occasionally do the “wool sucking” when making biscuits…that is the only time he does it.

    Reply
  23. Bernadette
    May 21, 2012 at 8:59 am (5 years ago)

    I’ve always noticed that most of my older cats eventually “eat dirt” and “lick rocks” as one of the results of anemia from renal failure–the houseplants have to either be moved or I cover the soil with large rocks, hence licking rocks. It can be really difficult when they start eating litter, which here is just basic non-scoop clay; this necessitates a clay substitute in all boxes for the duration of the condition.

    I’ve had cats who licked plastic items like the shower curtain and plastic bags, and who licked finished surfaces like wood, but we’re still trying to figure out why two of the Fantastic Four chew on plastic. Mr. Sunshine was at the veterinarian twice as a kitten for chewing and swallowing plastic but no treatment was needed because he passed it. I have to keep all plastic bags and packaging out of his reach. In the past year Jelly Bean has begun as well. They are five this year, we haven’t yet found a reason for it yet but they keep me on my toes.

    Reply
  24. Max the Quilt Cat
    May 21, 2012 at 7:41 am (5 years ago)

    Thanks for a great article. The boys both want to chew on everything. They usually pick stationary things…. Like the wing on the cement statue or the doorstopper thingy….

    Pawhugs, Max

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      May 21, 2012 at 9:29 am (5 years ago)

      The cement statue? Ouch!

      Reply

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