Pica in cats

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Pica is a term used to describe the consumption of non-edible materials.

It is most frequently seen in certain breeds, such as Siamese, Burmese, Tonkinese and other Oriental types, leading to the suggestion that there may be a genetic component with the trait passing down particular family lines. However other domestic cats with no known Oriental ancestry can also suffer from pica.

What materials are consumed?

The behaviour seen predominantly in the Oriental breeds is referred to as ‘wool eating’ as this is often the material chosen. However this consumption can generalise to other natural and synthetic fabrics, with some individuals favouring one particular texture. Objects made of rubber, wood, leather, plastic, cellophane, paper and cardboard are also popular.

At what age does this occur?

Some kittens arrive in their new home at the age of three months or even younger already chewing their bedding but may grow out of the habit as they mature. However for some the habit continues well into adulthood and can be highly resistant to intervention.

How would I know if my cat has pica?

Many cats will chew and tear at objects when exhibiting predatory behaviour during play but pieces are torn off and not consumed. A pica sufferer will take the chosen object in its mouth and grind repeatedly with the back molar teeth before swallowing in a sequence that can take just a few seconds. The behaviour is highly rewarding for susceptible individuals and many will go to great lengths to seek out the favoured material.  It is not fully understood why sufferers appear so highly motivated to consume fabric but one theory suggests that the act of chewing causes chemicals to be released in the ‘pica brain’ producing a feeling of intense pleasure. This then becomes addictive and, if a cat is observed ‘wool eating’, the expression does appear to be one of sheer ecstasy!

Is pica dangerous for my cat?

Unfortunately many of the substances chosen cannot be digested in the same way as food and there is a risk that it will cause an obstruction in the intestines and require surgery (called a laparotomy) to remove the material (referred to as a ‘foreign body’). Sections of gut may need to be removed in severe cases but, despite this, cats usually do make a full recovery afterwards.

What signs should I look for if my cat has a blockage?

If you know your cat suffers from pica, it is important to be vigilant and monitor for signs of a blockage in the intestines. These signs are vomiting, diarrhoea, constipation (straining unproductively) and general listlessness.

What should I do if my cat eats wool or other material?

Sufferers tend to have restricted lifestyles, for example living exclusively indoors, or may be particularly susceptible to stress. These cats need a great deal of stimulation indoors to give them things to do that enable them to behave in a natural way for the species. The ideal solution is free access outdoors; if this isn’t possible then a secured garden or outside pen may be an option.

It is advisable to remove all materials that are consumed (this may involve locking them away) and increase opportunities to play with moving objects, such as fishing rod toys. Some cats benefit from a dietary change to one with high fibre content or the introduction of softened hide sticks (usually given to small dogs) with a drop of fish oil added as an acceptable object to chew. Your vet can recommend a diet that may be suitable.

Not all pica habits represent serious addictions. For those cats that idly chew it is often possible to deter them by using Olbas Oil (eucalyptus oil) or Bitter Apple (used to deter animals from chewing at stitches in surgical wounds) to coat the item of choice. Removing the items from view may even be a sufficient measure in these cases to manage the problem.

What if I’ve tried and failed to stop my cat’s pica?

Pica can be very difficult to manage so it’s wise to consult a behaviour specialist, who will visit your home, assess your cat’s lifestyle and give you suggestions to stimulate your cat and reduce any relevant stressful situations. Your vet may prescribe an antidepressant drug if your cat is highly motivated to consume non-edible material that will work alongside the behaviour therapy that is put into place.

As this behaviour may be inheritable should I inform the breeder?

As there is some evidence to suggest that pica may be genetic it is important for any breeder to be aware of this problem to take the necessary steps, therefore, if your pedigree cat has this problem it would be wise to inform the breeder.

Are there any other pica problems that may affect my cat?

Cats may consume other abnormal materials apart from wool and other fabrics in behaviour that has no link with the habit that is common in the Oriental breeds. They will not use the same shearing action associated with wool-eating, so it is simple to distinguish one form of pica from another.

Unusual substances can be eaten or licked as a result of specific cravings associated with disease, such as hyperthyroidism (tumour of the thyroid gland), cancer, lead poisoning or feline infectious peritonitis. Cats with severe burdens of intestinal parasites or with chronic deficiencies in their diet may also consume non-nutritious material. Most cats eating these substances for medical reasons will also exhibit other behaviour that indicates they are unwell.

My cat eats litter, should I be worried?

It is relatively common when kittens are first weaned and toilet trained for them to eat cat litter. Some organic bio-degradable materials will do no intrinsic harm but many clumping clay litters are manufactured using a compound called sodium bentonite, a highly absorbent material that may cause dehydration and respiratory problems if it is eaten or inhaled by kittens. For this reason it is best to avoid the use of such litter materials when kittens are very young.

If adult cats start to eat clay-based litter this can also indicate the presence of disease, those with anaemia may lick or consume the litter and it would be advisable to seek advice from a veterinarian as a matter of urgency.

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