by Barbara George, Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
Pica is the term used for the behaviour of eating inedible or indigestible items. There are many possible reasons for this behaviour; in this article we are looking at cats that eat or chew only plastic – bags, wrapping, toys, rubber bands, electrical cables or any other form of plastic material. While some of this may apply to cats that eat other non-food items, there may be other underlying reasons.
Kittens are curious, and tend to test all new items with their mouths. A one-time chew on plastic is not a problem – redirect the chewing to a suitable toy; when the kitten keeps on finding plastic interesting to chew, the issue needs to be addressed.
Plastic bags or wrapping that have been in contact with food may still have the smell of the food. Cats use their sense of smell to indicate if an item is edible; if it smells like food, it may be food.
Cats that enjoy sounds may find plastic bags exciting, they crinkle, change shape, move around, and are fun to play with. After a game, they may lie on the plastic and lick or chew it as it is right there in front of them.
Certain types of plastic products contain oils, others may be coated with cornstarch, gelatine, or other products that may be attractive to cats.
Chewing on harder plastic items can be in indication of dental issues; here the hard plastic offers a form of relief or support for the teeth. Schedule a dental appointment with your vet to confirm there are no bad teeth or any gum disease.
A poor diet, even a lack of proper nutrition as a kitten, can leave a cat searching for missing nutrients. A good, approved diet, with possible supplements as suggested by your vet, can help to reduce the dependence on other sources of vital nutrients.
Some medical conditions, including hyperthyroidism and diabetes, can cause cats to feel hunger; they will chew or eat everything they can find and tasty plastics if they are available.
Boredom is a big factor for many behaviour issues. Cats are (mostly) intelligent, alert, athletic animals that need to use their minds and bodies to keep healthy and happy. Having access to an enclosed garden does help, however, if the garden remains the same every day it soon loses impact. The same applies to indoor cats – they need stimulation, an acceptable level of change, interaction with other beings along with food, shelter and safety.
Along with boredom, stress is a contributor to behaviour; chewing plastic can be a comfort mechanism, to occupy time and use stress energy, and also to gain attention.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is rare in cats, and may be linked to genetics. This may be seen in cats that chew or eat plastic in preference to any other activity or food. There is no definite diagnostic test for this; if all else has been ruled out it may be considered as a cause.
Plastic is not digestible, and small parts or torn-off pieces can become lodged in their digestive systems, or choke or suffocate the cats.
The exact reason for this behaviour needs to be discovered; your vet can help to eliminate medical issues. Resolving this need should stop the behaviour; if it has become a habit then removing plastic and substituting an acceptable alternative will lead
Store plastic bags in a secure area out of reach of cats. Dispose of food wrapping and other plastic items safely. Replace plastic food bowls with non-plastic puzzle feeders; this removes plastic food bowls and provides mental and physical stimulation.
Create opportunities for the cats to express their natural talents of climbing, running, chasing, playing and sleeping. Offer alternative items for chewing, reduce stress and boredom, interact and play games with your cats.
Removing all plastic items can mean changing your lifestyle, and will not stop the behaviour if the cause is not addressed.
To contact Barbara, please email firstname.lastname@example.org