Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
My male cat is 8 months old. Lately he has been eating toys and shoe laces, chewing strings off clothing and eating them, chewing bristles off the broom and eating them, and then vomiting them up. Last week, he didn’t eat normally for a couple of days, then I found two pom-pom balls he’d eaten and then threw up. I am trying to figure out why he continues to do this. My boyfriend and I play with him every day and have toys for him to play with when we are at work. We keep the blinds open for him so he can sit on the back of the sofa and look outside. Is he doing this because he is a kitten or is there another reason? I’m just worried that he is going to get hurt. What should I do?
Siouxsie: Kelly, you’re right to be concerned that your cat’s odd eating habits could cause injury. In a worst-case scenario, eating string could cause the intestines to become all twisted together, causing a blockage that would need to be repaired by surgery. Toys such as pom-poms can also cause blockages if they get into the intestines.
Thomas: Strings, and other stringy things such as tinsel, are tricky. Since we cats have backward-facing barbs on our tongues, we can’t spit string out once we get it in our mouths, so the only thing we can do is swallow it and hope it comes out the other end!
Dahlia: Toys that are small enough to chew and swallow, such as pom-pom balls and small foam balls, can cause similar problems.
Siouxsie: The good news is that there are ways to prevent this behavior.
Thomas: The first thing you’re going to have to do is make sure he doesn’t have access to the toys and other things he likes to eat. Put the broom in a closet and the clothes and shoes out of reach. Get rid of the pom-pom balls and other small toys he can swallow. Make sure any “thing on a string” toys are put away when you and your boyfriend are not home.
Dahlia: But don’t leave him without toys at all. Replace the soft and tiny toys with larger, firmer ones that he can’t get all the way into his mouth. For extra bonus points, get ball-like toys that are bouncy so he can have fun batting them around the house. He’ll soon find out that chasing toys is much more fun than eating them.
Siouxsie: One warning, though: Don’t get hollow, air-filled balls for him to chase. If he chews on a hollow ball he could puncture it and that could cause dire consequences.
Thomas: Some behaviorists believe that cats chew on string and broom bristles because they’re craving fiber. If you feed your cat only canned food, consider adding dry food to the mix so he can have something crunchy to chew on.
Dahlia: If he won’t eat dry food, increase the fiber content of his meals by adding either half a teaspoon of canned pumpkin or half a teaspoon of bran to his canned food ration. Start slowly, though, and just add a little bit at a time until you work up to half a teaspoon.
Siouxsie: You could also provide large treats like Pawbreakers, catnip balls combined with a human-food-grade binding agent, that he can chase and chew.
Thomas: Get some kitty greens for your cat, too. Cat grass is readily available at pet supply stores. Follow the directions and watch them sprout. We would recommend that you plant the cat grass in a heavy, low-sided planter rather than the plastic tub that typically accompanies cat gardens.
Dahlia: If you’re feeling really ambitious or you enjoy working with plants and soil, you can buy seeds of your own and plant your own kitty garden. Combine cat-safe seeds such as wheat grass and catnip (make sure the seeds have not been treated with chemicals and such) and plant them in a heavy, low-sided planter. Cover the seeds lightly with a quarter-inch (0.5 cm) layer of potting soil, water well, and allow them to drain. Mist the seeds daily with a plant sprayer and keep the pot in a warm, dark place until they begin to sprout, then place it in a sunny location. As soon as the grass is tall enough, place it somewhere convenient for your cat.
Siouxsie: You and your boyfriend can help your cat work off his energy by spending time every day playing with him. Most cats love “thing on a string” toys. You can buy these at pet stores or make your own “cat fishing toy” with a six-foot work boot lace, a bundle of fabric, and a stick. Secure the bundle of fabric to one end and the stick to the other, and make the toy act like your kitty’s natural prey.
Thomas: Two 15-minute play sessions each day will help your cat use his natural hunting instincts, get exercise, and perhaps even sleep through the night if one of the play sessions happens shortly before you’re getting ready to go to bed.
Dahlia: We’re quite sure that if you follow these tips, you’ll help your cat get over his toy- and string-eating habit.