My cat Iggy likes to eat tortilla chips — a little strange, but not nearly as odd as her taste for tape, preferably of the scotch or packing variety. Old Serena loved broccoli … but not as much as she loved licking photographs. I’ve yet to meet a cat that wasn’t a little quirky, but eating tape and photographs? Although I attributed these habits to the animal-based ingredients used to make the tape’s glue and the gelatin in developing photos — I also had a nagging suspicion that I might be justifying some obsessive behavior in my pets. Although I think it’s amusing in that special-kitty-kind-of-way, I have to wonder: is it normal for cats to eat strange things?
As it turns out, just like humans can manifest a disorder called pica (whereby non-nutritive items like dirt and clay are eaten) so do cats. And it can be pretty common in our feline friends.
In addition to tape and photographs, there is an abundance of other odd items that many a cat finds irresistible: shoelaces, paper, plastic grocery bags, houseplants, shower curtains, even electrical cords. Yikes. And I am sure there is a whole host of other strange things that cats find appealing to the palate. But why? Often times it’s nothing to worry about, but it turns out that pica has been associated with a number of diseases including feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus — a veterinarian should examine any cat with unusual eating habits. Here’s what a vet will look at when presented with a cat pica case:
Dietary deficiencies. Some cats will eat their cat litter if they’re anemic. This makes sense, as in the case of human pica the cause is quite often a mineral deficiency.
Medical problems. Cat pica is also associated with feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus, or it may be triggered by conditions like diabetes or brain tumors.
Genetic predisposition. For some cats, pica might just be in their genes. For example, wool sucking, sometimes a precursor to pica, is seen more frequently in Siamese and Birman cats (More on wool below.)
Environmental factors. Is the cat bored or seeking attention? Maybe he needs more mental or physical stimulation. Behavioral reasons for pica can include boredom, attention-seeking, attractive scents, hunger and learned behavior
Compulsive disorder. Once other possibilities are ruled out, some pet behavioralists start to look into the possibility of compulsive disorder.
A related behavior that is often seen in cats is the desire to suck on wool — and although this is often lumped together under the umbrella of cat pica, it seems to me to be of a slightly different nature. Nursing on wool seems more of a nursing behavior similar to kneading. To back me up, Arnold Plotnick MS, DVM, ACVIM, ABVP of Manhattan Cat Specialists says that “Wool-sucking is a commonly described abnormal ingestive behavior in cats. Wool-sucking, however, is a compulsive, misdirected form of nursing behavior and technically should be distinguished from true cases of pica.” He continues that “the younger a cat is weaned, the stronger its drive to nurse, and the more likely the cat is to suck on wool — or its owner’s arms, earlobes or hair. Although some cats may only suck on such fuzzy items as wool, fleece, and stuffed animals, others progress to actually eating these fabrics.”
Dangers and treatment
Is cat pica dangerous? Obviously munching on live power cords can be hazardous to a cat’s health — but the other danger is that ingested materials can get stuck in your cat’s stomach or intestine, which can obstruct the passage of food and may cut off the blood supply to organs — either scenario can be fatal.
As well, many houseplants are toxic to cats; chewing or eating these plants can have mild symptoms or be fatal. If your cat has a history of ingesting nonfood items and becomes lethargic, vomits, or displays other concerning behavior, take the cat to your veterinarian immediately. (See the ASPCA’s full list of plants toxic to cats.)
Treatment. Treatment is really just a matter of deterring. It’s important to determine if there is an underlying cause to your cat’s preference for eating nonfood items. After your cat’s good health has been established, try these tricks to help keep your feline from getting into trouble by ingesting potentially dangerous items.
Remember to keep no-no items like plastic, tape, clothing, blankets, houseplants and electric cords out of the reach of your cat.
Provide alternative items to chew or eat — food-dispensing toys, tough cat toys, or pieces of rawhide can be used to redirect your cat’s chewing behavior to more appropriate and safe items.
For cats that snack on houseplants, fill small flowerpots with grass or catnip as an alternative. And did you know that birdfeed can be used as a safe source of plant seed?
Provide structured play. Many cats chew on household items out of boredom. Offer interactive toys and dedicate some time each day to playing with your cat.
It may help to boost the fiber in your cat’s diet. In addition to adding more dietary fiber, high fiber foods usually contain fewer calories. Your kitty may be able to satisfy his craving to eat more while still maintaining his weight. (Talk to your veterinarian before making any changes to your cat’s diet.)
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