Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: November 1, 2022 by Crystal Uys
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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 material, this compulsive disorder can progress to true pica where cats chew on and sometimes ingest anything from wood to litter to plastic grocery bags.
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 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
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. 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.
Your veterinarian will want to do a thorough medical exam, including bloodwork, to rule out any medical causes.
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: Place the items your cat likes to chew on out of reach. 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.
This post was first published May 21, 2012 and has been updated.
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Ingrid King is an award-winning author, former veterinary hospital manager, and veterinary journalist who is passionate about cats.