Eating things that are not edible - pica in cats

cat sofa pica

Pica is a term used to describe behaviour in cats where they regularly eat items that are not considered edible. This sometimes includes repeated eating one specific item such as stones, but can also be eating a range of items such as items of clothing, sticks, plastic, hair bands, elastic bands, cat litter, soil or whatever they can find. Here our vet discusses this problem

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This is much less common in cats than dogs which tend to be much more fussy about what they consume. You can read more about pica in dogs here.

Some of this behaviour can be considered normal, for example kittens will often put things in their mouth they shouldn’t and often chew things when they are young as part of exploring the world they live in, and this can lead to them swallowing items. Most kittens will grow out of this behaviour as they mature but sometimes it becomes well established in adulthood.

It becomes a problem when it’s repeated and compulsive, and it can lead to obstructions in the gut. See our article on gastro-intestinal foreign bodies for more on this topic.

Causes of pica in pets

Establishing the cause of pica in your individual cat can be difficult, but the below list suggests some of the possible triggers:

  • Breed related - oriental breeds such as Tonkinese, Siamese or Burmese are more known for exhibiting this type of behaviour. This can be called ‘wool eating’ as often these breeds chew and swallow woollen fabrics. In this type of pica, affected cats seem to get immense pleasure from chewing their item of choice and often behavioural advice is needed to break the habit

  • Behavioural causes - stress/anxiety, boredom, learned behaviour- for example if the owner laughs or fusses the cat for picking up certain items this may reinforce the behaviour. Pica sufferers tend to be susceptible to stress in many cases and are often indoor cats, which have much less stimulation and exercise to house cats in general

  • Any condition or medication that increases hunger - diabetes mellitus, treatment with steroids (particularly high doses), appetite stimulants such as mirtazepine, malabsorption syndromes. Conditions that can lead to pica in cats include hyperthyroidism, lead poisoning or internal parasites

  • Diet related - an unbalanced or low quality diet may cause your cat to crave things they are not receiving in their normal diet, so ensure you are using a high quality complete diet appropriate for your cat’s life stage

  • Some clinical diseases - There are certain conditions that have been associated with pica such as anaemia, irritable bowel disease, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) and liver disease

What can I do to prevent pica?

The following steps will help reduce the behaviour and prevent it occurring in the first place:

  • Ensure your cat is being fed a high quality diet appropriate for their life stage and is a healthy weight

  • Do not reinforce any behaviour which involves picking up items, try to exchange any item they have with something else like a toy or a treat. If the picking up of unwanted items is a learnt behaviour, it may be worth consulting with a behaviourist to discuss techniques to reduce this

  • If pica is a particular problem in your cat, it is worth having a consultation with a vet, who may recommend screening for any underlying health issues with investigations such as a blood test. They may also suggest medication such as anti-depressants which can be effective in breaking compulsive behaviour if your cat’s habit is putting its health at risk

  • If your cat does tend to eat things they shouldn’t, be careful you do not leave them in environments where they can easily pick things up and keep things like hair bands or elastic bands locked away

  • Make sure they have appropriate levels of exercise and mental stimulation to reduce boredom. Mental stimulation could involve hiding treats or teaching them commands such as sit. Cats are capable of learning commands just like dogs! Using interactive toys and play with them for 30-60 minutes a day, particularly if they are indoor cats

  • In wool-eating pica, and other types, you can deter them from chewing their chosen item with a few drops of Olbas oil or bitter apple spray. Substitute the item with a with a small piece of chicken pasta, fish oil or cheese paste (choose something they enjoy)

Still have questions?

If you would like more advice on nutrition or raw feeding, please book an online video appointment to have a chat with one of our FirstVet nutrition vets.

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