Abnormal eating habits and chewing in cats (Pica)
If your cat licks, chews or eats items that are not food, it is showing a type of behaviour called 'pica'. This behaviour can be very difficult for both of you. Your belongings might never be safe and worse, your feline friend is at risk too. Items swallowed could cause an obstruction inside your cat or may be poisonous. There may be many reasons for your cat to show pica - this behaviour can be a sign of discomfort or may be the result of a medical problem. You must first find out why your pet is showing this behaviour if you want to stop it.
What is pica?
Pica is the unusual behaviour of eating things that are not food and are of no nutritional value. Cats with pica may be drawn to fabrics, such as cotton and wool, or may eat or chew rubber or electric cable. One of the most common forms is wool eating - also called 'wool-sucking', although cats may also chew and eat it ('wool-chewing' or 'fabric eating').
There are many reasons why pica should be controlled. In addition to damage to objects, the overwhelming concern is for the health and well-being of your cat. The things that your cat has eaten can get stuck in its bowel and cats chewing electrical cables can get an electric shock.
Why does my cat eat objects or plants?
Cats do not chew things to annoy their owner. Eating grass can be normal, and can be a normal response to help your cat to pass stools, so if your cat does this very often, it is important that your vet checks that there are no medical problems causing problems with the passage of stools. Reasons for eating other objects may depend on a range of psychological factors. Weaning and removing kittens from their litter too early or suddenly may increase the risk of the problems as fabric sucking often develops as a comfort behaviour.
Genetic factors may also play a role since breeds such as Siamese, Burmese and 'oriental types' are more likely to exhibit pica, and you may see it in cats related to each other. However, other breeds can also show this behaviour. Data exist that shows that even when there is a familial pattern, environmental stressors matter.
In all cases there will have been an event that distressed your cat and made them start the behaviour. This may have been emotional stress of being rehomed, or the sudden arrival of a new animal in your house or the neighbourhood, creating conflict. In some cases cats develop pica in response to separation anxiety from being parted from their owner. In this case you will notice that the behaviour happens mostly when you are not present.
Can pica be treated?
If your cat has pica, you must be aware that your responses can inadvertently worsen the behaviour of your pet. If the problem is caused by some form of stress, punishing you pet to stop the behaviour is likely to increase their sense of unease or will make your pet simply chew out of your view. Conversely, any form of attention may be rewarding for your cat and you may involuntarily reinforce this behaviour. As a general view of is better to ignore a cat that is showing pica.
Avoidance of the problem is important so put any items that your cat should not chew or eat out of way. If this is not possible (as in the case of cables), you may need to protect them and make it impossible for your pet to chew them. Popular remedies include leaving around very small pieces of the material that your cat wants to eat (eg a small square of wool) mixed with a small quantity of a disgusting substance to try to decrease the appeal of these things in the future. There is no scientific evidence to support this practice but it is unlikely to do much harm providing you ensure such therapies are accompanied by attempts to ensure your cat's other needs are met.
If your pet feels uneasy with some situations, it is important to recognise this and avoid these situations if possible or teach your cat to feel more comfortable in those contexts. In some cases (eg recently adopted cats) you can also help them to feel a sense of security by providing raised resting posts, little and often feeding as well as the use of a calming pheromone such as Feliway® (while there are no data that these work, they have been used and purport to be useful in these circumstances).
Indoor cats are more likely to show pica, so you may increase the activties and stimulation available to your pet. Cats use their environment in '3D': they will love to have raised resting areas both to feel safe and observe their surroundings. You may also provide cardboard boxes where your pet can hide and play with you. Other games that your cat may love include cat fishing rod toys. It is also important that you give some food to your cat at the end of the game when the cat has caught the prey to conclude the hunt successfully, or your cat will find the game frustrasting. Other ways to increase your cat's stimulation is to provide areas where they can observe their surroundings (such as a nice chair near a window). You can give your pet toys filled with catnip, which has an odour that some cats love. Take note of your own cat's response to this as responses are individual and some cats hallucinate and are made more anxious and some cats do not respond. Finally, food can also be used. You can hide kibble and let your cat find them; you can also provide 'puzzle-feeders'. Different cats love different things; you may try a variety to find the ones that your pet prefers.
Finally, remember that the chances of resolving this problem are better with early intervention. The more time you cats spends showing this behaviour, the more it will learn to do it. Indeed, nearly all behavioural problems are most easily dealt with if they are faced up to at an early stage. If you are worried about any aspect of your cat's behaviour seek help from your veterinary practice. If your vet is concerned they may wish to refer you to a specialist animal behaviourist. In some cases, your veterinary surgeon may also suggest trying some medication to aid progress by reducing the distresss displayed by your cat.