Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
My 5-year-old Siberian cat has a very bad habit: he eats whatever he finds and seems to have a taste for non-food items. It started out with eating stuffed animals (plush toys, for those of you in the UK), usually chewing off their arms, feet, ears and faces. After putting those out of his reach, he started eating our clothing. When the clothing was removed from his path, he started eating other things like wires, blankets and sheets — and just about anything else he could get to. The more we take away, the more creative he gets.
His bizarre tastes have cost me thousands of dollars in vet bills — he ate a small magnet once, and he’s eaten fiberglass wire. I love him very much, and I’m afraid that one of these days he’s going to eat the wrong thing. Any ideas?
Siouxsie: It sounds like your cat is suffering from a condition called pica. Pica is defined as the act of eating non-food items.
Thomas: While habits like wool chewing and wool sucking are relatively common in cats, the actual act of compulsively eating inedible things … well, not so much.
Dahlia: Even vets aren’t entirely sure why cats eat things they’re not supposed to. But there are a few physical health conditions that seem to occur in cats with pica. Some forms of anemia, for example, may cause cats to eat non-food items to get the nutrients they need.
Siouxsie: Some vets have also suggested that the types of items cats eat can help reveal what vitamins and minerals are missing in their diets.
Thomas: Pica seems more common in cats with the feline leukemia virus (FeLV)or the feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), and it can be triggered by conditions like diabetes.
Dahlia: We imagine your cat has been tested for FIV and FeLV and probably had a full blood workup recently. If this is the case and he has a clean bill of physical health, then it’s time to treat it as a behavioral problem.
Siouxsie: Cats that are highly stressed or anxious may use chewing behavior as a self-soothing technique.
Thomas: Pica is also pretty common in bored or lonely cats.
Dahlia: You can help ease his boredom by providing environmental enrichment: give him puzzle toys including things like rolling treat balls to keep him busy while you’re away at work. (If you do use a toy that dispenses treats, be sure to reduce the amount of food your cat gets at each feeding so he doesn’t become obese.)
Siouxsie: When you’re home, give him lots of interactive play time. Teaser toys are great for exercise and mental stimulation — and a tired cat is a non-destructive cat!
Thomas: If you see your cat acting as if he’s going to start chewing on something, use the teaser toy to distract him and redirect his behavior in a more acceptable direction.
Dahlia: When you’re not using the teaser toy, be sure to put it away in a place he can’t reach it. One of our cat friends, Pedro, recently ate all the fleece off his favorite teaser toy and had to be rushed to the vet to get it out of his stomach!
Siouxsie: Do your best to hide wires by using cord guards; keep your cell phone wires, headphones, USB cords and the like in a plastic storage container with a tight-closing lid; and use a non-toxic deterrent spray like bitter apple to make any exposed cords taste gross.
Thomas: Provide your cat with more appropriate things to chew on. There are actually chew toys made for cats, and these might prove to be safe alternatives.
Dahlia: Given the seriousness of your cat’s pica, we’d also recommend consulting a veterinary behaviorist. Ask your vet if he or she knows of any behaviorists in your area. But even if there are none, many will do phone consultations.
Siouxsie: The easiest way to find a well-qualified animal behaviorist is to search the member directories on the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants websites.
Thomas: Sometimes a short course of anti-anxiety medications can jump-start the rehabilitation and behavior modification process, but that’s best left to the discretion of your vet or the behaviorist you choose to work with.
Dahlia: Whatever you do, don’t give up hope if you don’t see results right away. Successful behavior modification takes a long time. After all, your kitty didn’t become such a crazy eater overnight, so it’s going to take a while to break the habit.