Help, My Cat Ate My Sweater! Dealing with Pica

July 9, 2013

Some cats eat “stuff.”  It might be paper or plastic, fabric or house plants.  They may actually swallow the items or perhaps just chew or suck on them.  Whatever, this compulsive need to chew on or consume non-food items is an eating disorder known as pica.

Common items for chewing include fabrics (wool in particular), yarn, string, plastic and electrical cords.  Any of these can be fatal if ingested.  String or yarn can wrap around the intestines, blocking food passage and cutting off blood supply.  Many plants are toxic to cats and electrical cords, if plugged in, can kill or leave horrible burns.

The exact cause of pica isn’t known, but genetics may play a major role.  In a British study in 1990, 152 owners of pica cats were surveyed.  Results showed that where the cats’ siblings were known, 58% had a brother or sister that also showed signs of pica.  83% of the cats ate or sucked on wool fabric.  Researchers found that 55% of the cats studied were Siamese and 28% were Burmese.

Bored cats will sometimes show symptoms of pica as a way to gain attention from their owners.  It is also believed that kittens that are separated too early from their mothers are more likely to have pica.

Max, a Siamese-mix cat who shared his short life with Elisa Hereth, had an obsession with plastic bags.  Any piece of plastic left in his reach was likely to be confiscated by Max for eating later.  He was fortunate that his bad habit never caused a blockage or other problem for him, but his veterinarian frequently cautioned his owner to hide all sources of plastic from him.  Max and his littermates were found in a drainage culvert when they were about 2 weeks old.  Perhaps this early separation from his mother contributed to his pica behavior.

If your cat suffers from pica, have him examined by your veterinarian to rule out any medical cause.  Several diseases can result in pica behavior.  One example is hyperthyroidism, which can lead a cat to eat dirt, cat litter, and other non-food items.  Once treated and thyroid hormone levels return to normal, the pica will most likely correct itself.

Chico, a cat with pica Chico, a Cat with Pica

Some cats are obsessed with plants.  Several years ago, my two kittens, Jake and Chico, began devouring my plants on the lanai. When Chico became ill after chewing on a philodendron, I got rid of all the plants.  However Chico, another motherless kitten, moved on to sucking on the linens on our bed.

Pica has been linked to FIV (feline immune-deficiency virus) and FeLV (feline leukemia).  It is also thought that pica is connected to pancreatic disease and anemia.

Whatever the cause, a solution must be found to avoid serious harm to the cat.  If plants are the chewing item of choice, remove them.  Substitute food-dispensing toys for the offending item in order to distract kitty.  More attention from the owner to the cat might help.  If your cat chews fabric, spray his fabric of choice with a substance to deter cats.  For instance, my cats dislike the taste of Bitter Apple, a spray deterrent you can find in retail pet stores, including Pet Smart.

Indoor-only cats are subject to more anxiety and stress than cats that have access to the outside.  Pica behaviors may provide comfort to a stressed animal.  In some extreme case, a veterinarian may prescribe medications to calm the cat.

Whatever you do, don’t punish the cat.  Just protect him from any possible harm as you seek the solution that works best for his particular problem.

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