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? Do they 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.
And although nibbling on a bit of paper or occasionally chewing on a plastic bag -- some of which contain gelatin, which cats can sense -- could simply be a harmless little quirk, "It’s hard to know," Plotnick says. "If your cat is eating something odd, it should first be seen by a vet."
Not every cat will progress from sucking wool to eating rubber bands, but some do. Moon-Fanelli says, "It is a concern" once they start ingesting inedible materials. That’s because indigestible items could lead to intestinal blockages, which. Moon-Fanelli says, could be extremely costly and even deadly.
What about grass? While many people think cats eat grass to stimulate vomiting and relieve hairballs, for some cats, grass-eating may eventually progress to chewing on houseplants. This habit can be dangerous because many houseplants, such as lilies, tulips, chrysanthemums, and English ivy, are poisonous to cats or can cause gastrointestinal upset.
What You Can Do
Always talk with your veterinarian first to rule out serious medical causes for cat pica.
Then discuss with your vet ways to discourage your cat from eating nonfood items. The experts at the William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at University of California, Davis, as well as other vets and animal behaviorists, suggest the following actions:
- Remove targeted items. The easiest solution may be simply to hide the clothes, plants, or other items your cat loves to chew on.
- Give your cat something else to chew. Divert your cat’s need to chew toward safer, more appropriate things like cat toys inside which you can hide an edible treat or some other appealing item made specifically for cats. To keep grass-eating cats from sampling houseplants, try growing catnip or a small pot of grass for your cat to nibble on. But keep watch. "Sometimes a cat ends up eating the potting material as well as the grass," Moon-Fanelli says. The result? Diarrhea.
- Play with your cat. Some cats that chew are just bored or lonely. So make time for your attention-starved feline friend by giving them more mental or physical stimulation. You could train your cat to wear a harness and teach them to take walks, suggests Moon-Fanelli. Some cats enjoy outdoor enclosures where they can watch birds and other stimulating things.
- Make appealing items unappealing. Applying strong-smelling substances like citrus air-freshener or foul-tasting things like hot sauce, Bandguard, or Bitter Apple to items like power cords can cause a cat to steer clear.
- Get rid of dangerous plants. If your cat is attracted to houseplants, get rid of those that are considered toxic to pets. You can find out which plants are poisonous to cats at the web site of the ASPCA.
- Talk to an animal behaviorist. If your cat continues to eat non-food items and you know it’s not a medical issue, look for a certified applied animal behaviorist (CAAB), suggests Moon-Fanelli. Many CAABs offer remote consultations and can work closely with your own veterinarian.
Be patient. "Everyone wants a step one, two, three to treat behavior," says Moon-Fanelli. But, she says, behavior is quite complex and "there’s no one-size-fits-all treatment. Every cat is an individual, and every environment is somewhat different."
Cats nibbling on teddy bears or chewing on string can look pretty cute, but the result can be anything but. Don’t wait for a life threatening intestinal blockage or an underlying medical problem to come to the fore before talking to your vet about your cat’s unusual cravings.