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Why Is My Cat Eating That?

Understanding odd food behavior and how to conquer strange cat cravings.
By
WebMD Pet Health Feature
Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S

Some cat cravings are easy to understand: Cream, catnip, mice.

But plastic bags, houseplants, wool, paper, rubber bands? Why would a cat eat those?

Strange Things Cats Eat

The urge to eat nonfood items -- called pica -- can be pretty common in cats.

Many cats will nurse on wool, says Arnold Plotnick, DVM, a veterinary internist and feline specialist in New York. Oriental cats "are predisposed to that," he says.

That habit also may appear in cats that were weaned too early. 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 eating these fabrics.

And some cats move on to eating stranger items such as shoelaces, paper, plastic goods like grocery bags and shower curtains, and even electrical cords, says Nicholas H. Dodman, section head and program director of Animal Behavior at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

What Causes Unusual Cravings?

"I wish I knew the answer to that one," Plotnick says. Cat pica may be caused by many things, including:

  • Dietary deficiencies: Some cats will eat their cat litter if they’re anemic, Plotnick says. "I’ve had two cases of cats with anemia, and that was one of the signs." And although it’s normal for cats to eat a little grass, eating a lot of plant material may indicate something’s missing from the cat’s diet.
  • Medical problems: Cat pica is also associated with feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus, and it may be triggered by conditions like diabetes or brain tumors.
  • Genetic predisposition: For some cats, pica appears to be in their genes. For example, wool sucking, sometimes a precursor to pica, is seen more frequently in Siamese and Birman cats, says Alice Moon-Fanelli, PhD, CAAB, a certified applied animal behaviorist researching wool sucking at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.
  • Environmental factors: Is the cat bored or seeking attention? Does he need more mental or physical stimulation? "Some cats require more environmental stimulation than others," Moon-Fanelli says.
  • Compulsive disorder: Once other possibilities are ruled out, Moon-Fanelli says, "we start to investigate whether the behavior may be a compulsive disorder. We think it may have a genetic basis, because we do see it occurring more frequently in certain breeds." 

Though feline pica shows up most frequently in young cats, it can also appear in older cats.

When that happens, says Moon-Fanelli, "my first thought is, ‘Is there an underlying medical cause, or stressful changes in the environment that would precipitate this sort of behavior?’"

When Cravings Become a Problem

If a cat simply sucks on wool or other soft and fuzzy items, that’s usually not a problem, say the experts.

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