Pica is the term used for the behavior of eating non-food material. The most common material associated with pica is usually wool such as blankets, socks, jackets, etc., but some cats will nibble on just about anything such as paper, plastic grocery bags, litter or shoelaces.
What Causes Pica in Cats?
Pica is considered an obsessive/compulsive-type behavior. There are many possible reasons for pica behavior such as:
Deficiencies in the diet. Some veterinarians and behavior experts believe that inadequate amounts of fat or fiber in the diet can lead a cat to crave these nutrients from non-edible sources. Some cats who are anemic may try to eat litter.
Stress. Cats who are living in a stressful environment may try to self-soothe by engaging in pica behavior. Changes in the environment such as a move to a new home or the addition of absence of a family member can be stress triggers that can lead to pica.
Boredom or Lack of Attention. A bored cat who is not receiving adequate mental and physical stimulation might begin munching on non-food items just for something to do.
Underlying medical problems. Certain diseases such as diabetes, dental disease or hyperthyroidism or brain disorders may be associated with pica behavior.
Genetics. Pica seems to be more common in Oriental breeds such as Siamese.
Displacement. Whether the cause is boredom, stress or frustration, a cat may turn to pica (as well as other behaviors) as a displacement behavior. It can also be a displacement behavior when the cat would rather be doing something else but is unable to or if the cat has been punished.
Veterinary exam. Have your cat examined by the veterinarian. If there is an underlying medical problem it will need to be diagnosed and addressed.
Dietary adjustments. Your veterinarian may make a recommendation for supplementing your cat’s food with increased fiber or something else. Don’t make any dietary adjustments without consulting with your veterinarian. An inappropriate amount of fiber added to the diet can cause major intestinal distress.
Remove temptation. If kitty is munching on socks or items that shouldn’t be accessible, make sure temptation is removed by keeping clothing in drawers, closets or in hampers with lids. If your cat is chewing on plants, remove them from the indoor environment. Do your best to keep items of temptation out of your cat’s reach. Don’t punish the cat for chewing on items as that will simply increase frustration and stress.
Provide mental and physical stimulation. A bored cat will look for something to do and that something might include chewing on a non-edible item. Increase environmental enrichment by providing puzzle feeders, activity toys, scratching posts, cat trees, and other forms on stimulation. Place a cat tree near a window so your cat can watch the outdoor activities. If you think your cat would enjoy some exposure to outdoors, consider purchasing or constructing a safe outdoor enclosure. Some of them are just enclosures that can be installed in windows and others are more elaborate and have walkways for kitty. Another option is to train your cat to walk on a leash and harness.
Interactive play therapy. Engage your cat in a couple of interactive play therapy sessions per day. When you use a fishing pole-type toy you can control the movements so your cat is able to truly benefit both mentally and physically. She gets to get the “mighty hunter” and enjoy stalking, pouncing and capturing. Be consistent about the play schedule and try to conduct at least two 15-minute sessions per day. Cats like the comfort of familiar routines.
Safe alternatives for chewing. In addition to puzzle feeder toys, try growing some safe kitty greens (rye, oat or wheat grass) or catnip for your cat. You can find kitty greens kits in your local pet product store. You can also buy an already-grown square of grass from many organic food stores or grow your own. Don’t offer grass from your lawn because it’s often treated with chemicals and fertilizers.
Reduce stress. Use your detective skills to determine what is causing stress in her environment. Is there another companion cat causing tension? Is there stress in the family? Have you made changes to your cat’s environment? Stress triggers can be big and obvious or they can be small and easy for humans to overlook. Work on creating a more secure and comforting environment for your cat. Make sure she has cozy little hideaways for napping, elevated areas so she can look over her environment, has a secure feeding station location and a secure litter box area. Look at the environment from your cat’s point of view. In a multicat household, be sure there are adequate resources for each cat and that they’re located in various areas so one cat doesn’t have to cross another cat’s preferred area in order to access the litter box, food/water bowls or a napping location.
Get professional help. If you can’t figure out what might be triggering pica or have been unable to redirect your cat away from the behavior, ask your veterinarian for a referral to a certified behavior professional.
Need More Information?
Pam is unable to respond to comments. If you have questions about cat behavior you can find many answers in the best-selling books by Pam Johnson-Bennett as well as in the articles on our site. If your cat displays a change in behavior, contact your veterinarian because there may be an underlying medical cause. This article is not intended as a replacement for your cat’s veterinary care.