by Barbara George
Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
Pica is the term used for the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder of eating inedible items such as wool, fabric, elastic, paper, plastic, leather, wood and many other items. There are many possible reasons for the behaviour. When any behaviour becomes a habit it becomes more difficult to break so prompt attention and action is needed to save your good items from your cat. Cats are not deliberately destructive; this behaviour indicates a problem or need that should be resolved.
Certain breeds such as Siamese, Burmese and Orientals seem to have a genetic disposition to this behaviour. If your cat is one of these, or has one as a parent, check with the breeder or owner of the parents of there are other cats in the litter or closely related that exhibit similar behaviour. If this is the case these cats can learn alternative behaviour but will fall back to instinctive patterns when stressed or fearful.
Certain illnesses or diseases create a need in the body which cats try to fill by eating. Internal parasites may also be responsible. Prolonged use of antibiotics will destroy good bacteria in the gut and allergies can create unusual cravings. Please check with your vet for any of these conditions.
Issues with the mouth, gums, teeth or throat can create the urge to chew or bite to relieve pain or discomfort. Please check with your vet who will be able to give the best advice.
Kittens and cats that were rescued or had a poor start in life may have poorly developed immune systems. A lack of minerals, vitamins and fibre building blocks leaves the body at a disadvantage. This also applies to cats that have a change in their diet at any time; they may feel a need for some item in their previous diet that is not in the current one – this also includes preservatives and additives used in many commercial foods. Cats may try to supplement these by eating other items. A good diet and possibly extra supplements will help to build a better body and immune system.
Poor early socialisation, often from losing contact with MomCat and siblings or being reared in isolation, can contribute to this behaviour. The sucking reflex used for drinking milk from MomCat also creates a sense of comfort and well-being. Some cats feel the need to continue this after kittenhood, replacing MomCat with other items. While this may be considered acceptable when they are small it can become an annoying habit in adult cats. Changing the behaviour to something more acceptable should be started early.
Stress plays a large role in behaviour. Stress can be from a lack of socialisation, low levels of confidence, personality, environment, illness, other cats, and other issues. Cats may revert to sucking items as a soothing and comforting behaviour and progress to eating these items. Stress management options will depend on the situation; the best solution is to contact a behaviourist for a full assessment.
Boredom is a form of stress that can be managed at home. Add items to stimulate, toys, daily interactive play sessions and puzzle feeders to enrich his day. A playmate could be an option but may also lead to more stress if they do not make friends.
Separation anxiety is a form of stress. Cats that have low levels of confidence, are nervous or dependant on others for company are likely to find consultation in sucking or eating items, especially those items that have the scent of the person or animal they are missing. This also applies when children leave home or another pet in the family dies.
Cats that need attention or constant companionship may use this behaviour to their advantage as it ‘rewards’ with attention – even negative attention! This can usually be controlled by improving confidence and training to a new, acceptable, behaviour.
Loss of a companion, either a person or another animal, can result in a feeling of grief or loss. Items that were used by the missing person will still smell of them, so this could be a comforting behaviour to simulate the presence of the missing person or animal.
Older cats that suffer from arthritis or other age-related illnesses may start by licking themselves and, due to lack of flexibility, lick their bedding instead. This then becomes all they can do, and progresses to a regular behaviour as a substitute for grooming.
Some cats find a taste that they like and become addicted to it. This applies mainly to chemicals used for cleaning and washing but also to paper, glue, plastic, lanolin in wool, and many other items. Keeping a note of items that are eaten, what they are composed of, when and how they were last cleaned, who they belonged to, etc. may help to identify if this is a possible reason. Your vet will be the best person to advice on a course of action to rectify the problem.
For some cats this may start as a survival strategy, for example if they are confined in an area without food they will eat what is available. This could be in a search for food or water or to keep themselves occupied. Once they are released they may continue with the behaviour in times of stress even when there is sufficient food and water available. Reducing their exposure to stress, boosting confidence and training to a more acceptable behaviour should reduce the occurrences and eventually stop the behaviour.
Whatever the reason your cat is choosing to eat undesirable items, the behaviour should be investigated and changed be more acceptable. Ingesting foreign bodies and/soft materials can have a serious impact on his health and could require expensive surgery. This behaviour is usually a signal that he has an issue that needs addressing.