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  1. cats health and wellness

What Is Pica in Cats and How To Treat It

Posted by Dr. Roth on August 04, 2022

Wellness Care
What to do if?
Nutrition
Stress & Anxiety
Pica In Cats What It Is and How To Rectify It Header Photo

Many cats enjoy playing with and tearing up random items around their homes, leaving a trail of shredded materials in their wake. Some cats, however, don’t just chew inedible objects; they eat them. This behavior could indicate pica, and pet parents shouldn’t ignore it.

What Is Pica in Cats?

Feline pica is a behavioral condition in which a cat chews and eats non-edible items. Wool is one of the most common materials cats with pica choose to eat, which has led to the condition being called “wool sucking” or “wool eating.” Other popular items include other natural and synthetic fibers, plastic bags, rubber bands, paper, plants, and electrical cords, with some cats preferring one particular texture over the rest. 

Consuming objects not meant to be eaten significantly increases a cat’s risk of harmful or life-threatening issues such as:

  • Intestinal blockages

  • Toxicity 

  • Tearing or puncturing of the digestive tract 

  • Electrocution

What Causes Feline Pica?

The exact cause of pica disorder in cats is currently unknown. Professionals link this obsessive/compulsive-type behavior to several potential underlying issues, which can make the condition more challenging to diagnose. 

While answering what causes pica in cats can be difficult, a few issues are frequently linked to it:

Dietary Deficiencies

One of the common reasons believed to be behind the desire to eat unusual and inedible objects is nutritional deficiencies. A cat may start consuming a particular item to compensate for a vitamin or mineral deficiency, lack of fiber, or other missing nutrients. For instance, they might eat litter or soil for iron. 

Genetic Predisposition and Age

While any cat can develop pica, it’s more likely to occur in some breeds than in others. It’s particularly common in Siamese, Burmese, and Oriental breeds (long-hair/short-hair). Additionally, these breeds tend toward wool products. 

Pica is also more common in younger cats, particularly those younger than three months of age. That’s around the age most kittens go to their new homes. It’s also possible the kittens may have weaned too soon. While many outgrow the compulsion to suck and chew on fabrics or other objects, some don’t. Eventually, sucking and chewing can lead to eating. 

Other reasons a cat may develop pica include:

  • Medical reasons: Feline leukemia, anemia, diabetes, hyperthyroidism, dental disease, brain tumor.

  • Behavioral factors: Stress and anxiety (separation anxiety, fear-related, changes in the home such as a move or new pet).

  • Boredom: Lack of mental or physical stimulation or attention-seeking behavior.

Clinical Signs of Pica In Cats

One of the first signs of pica a pet parent will notice is the eating of inedible objects, although cats with milder forms of pica may only lick or suck on their items of choice. Pica behavior is also typically consistent and may even be compulsive.

In addition to the frequent chewing on and eating of non-food items, pet parents may notice a few other symptoms that could point toward pica disorder in cats:

Gastrointestinal Signs

When cats eat fabrics, rubber bands, plastic, and other objects they shouldn’t, these items can get lodged in their digestive tracts. This can lead to a blockage or other harm that, without treatment, could be fatal. Symptoms of these issues may include:

  • Vomiting: Vomiting can occur for various reasons, including upset stomach, ingestion of toxic substances, and intestinal blockages. In some cases, pet parents may find bits of the inedible object in their cat’s vomit. 

  • Constipation or diarrhea: A blockage in the intestines can make it difficult or impossible for a cat to defecate.

  • Lack of appetite: A cat with a belly full of inedible objects may not eat a lot (or any) of their regular meals. An intestinal blockage may also cause appetite loss

Behavioral Issues

Sudden changes in behavior can indicate a problem. For instance, a typically active or affectionate cat may become lethargic, listless, or withdrawn. Stress or anxiety can trigger pica behavior as a way to self-soothe.

Generally, if a cat isn’t acting like their usual self, a pet parent should check in with a veterinary professional to get to the bottom of the issue. 

Treatment Options for Cat Pica

With so many potential causes, many pet parents wonder, “how do you treat pica in cats?” Pet parents have a few options:

Remove Non-Food Items From Your Pet’s Reach

One of the easiest ways to curb pica behavior is for cat owners to move non-food items to inaccessible locations. For example, a pet parent may need to keep jackets hung in a closet, keep rubber bands in a drawer, or store yarn in a sealed bin. Getting rid of toxic plants can protect felines who enjoy chewing on houseplants. 

Consult With a Vet and Animal Behaviorist for Treatment Plan

A professional vet can help determine any underlying health or behavioral issues that may be causing a cat’s pica. Consultations typically begin with a discussion of the feline’s symptoms, behaviors, and health history. If necessary, the vet may also recommend diagnostic tests or imaging to rule out medical issues such as diseases or blockages. 

Depending on what a vet discovers, treatment options may include:

  • A dietary change

  • Enrichment activities

  • Anti-anxiety supplements (sprays, treats, etc.)

  • Treating an underlying medical condition

If there is no medical issue and none of the other recommendations seem to work, a pet parent may also consider consulting with a veterinary behavior specialist or certified pet behaviorist. They may also be able to help get to the bottom of a cat’s pica and provide additional tips and advice that may curb the behavior.  

As a Fuzzy member, a pet parent will have access to professional vet assistance online 24/7. Within minutes, they can consult with a live vet to discuss their cat’s health and behavior without the need for an appointment. They’ll also receive discounts on pet products, be able to refill prescriptions without vet trips, and receive yearly virtual physical exams for their pets. 

Prevent the Onset of Pica and Other Health Conditions 

At first glance, a cat chewing on yarn, different fabrics, or other non-food items might seem like an innocent quirk. Upon closer inspection, those behaviors could indicate the onset of pica or point toward an underlying health issue. As soon as a pet parent notices these behaviors, especially if they’re persistent, they should contact a vet for a consultation. Getting to the bottom of the behavior sooner and learning how to treat pica in cats can help prevent more serious issues later. 

With Fuzzy, pet parents will never have to wait for the vet’s office to open or schedule an appointment. They can speak with a professional vet at any time for advice and recommendations at any time. Pet parents interested in becoming Fuzzy members can sign up today.

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