Pica and cats –how to help what’s eating them and why (c) 2016-
2017 Frania Shelley-Grielen all rights reserved
Cats are meat eaters and hunters, “obligate carnivores” who depend on those amino
acids found only in meat for complete nutrition. So why do some cats consume plastic,
fabric and other inedible objects? “Pica” is defined as an atypical desire for and eating
of substances not normally eaten. This behavior is seen in humans as well as cats. It
has been found to satisfy nutritional deficiencies when chalk, ashes, or bones are
consumed for phosphorus or when clay or dirt is consumed for iron. Grass chewing in
cats is not strictly pica as cats often exhibit a natural preference for grass when it is
available and ingesting it may benefit digestion. Pica also refers to eating non
nutritive substances and is commonly seen in cats that suckle or consume fabric,
plastic or foreign objects. Various theories as to the motivation for the behavior range
from medical conditions to a need for more fiber in the diet, early weaning, emotional
upset, stress or lack of choice and control. It is important to rule out medical concerns
initially when dealing with pica and to note that even when the basis is thought to be
behavioral there are cases where pica can contribute to intestinal blockage which can
be quite dangerous. As an indicator of stress, Pica is a sign of poor welfare for the cat.
Fabric suckling along with kneading with the forepaws may concern some cat owners
and even has been termed as “infantile behavior” by certain experts and grouped in
behaviors consistent with pica. Again, where the fabric is not being ingested, the
behavior is not consistent with pica and really should not be a concern for the cat’s well
being. Kneading and fabric suckling may be an intrinsically rewarding behavior for
the cat and if the motivation is self soothing or pleasurable and not harmful should not
be denied. What then constitutes a “problem” behavior when looking at pica and cats,
what else do we know about it and what interventions are useful?
Cat experts John Bradshaw, Peter Neville and Diana Sawyer looked at pica behaviors
in 152 cats, most of whom were Siamese and Burmese. The cats demonstrated a clear
preference for wool, followed by cotton and then synthetic fabrics. Rubber or plastic
materials led the choice in foreign objects. Cotton was ingested more than any other
material. The majority of the cats in the study had been rehomed. Pica occurred
within four months of rehoming in 81% of the cases. The authors’ state: “this data
strongly suggests that rehoming is one factor which may trigger pica.”
Another study, led by Isabelle Deomntigny-Bedard, looking at pica and chewing
behaviors surveyed cats owners of 91 cats performing pica compared to owners of 35
cats who did not perform the behavior. In this study cats who chewed on an inedible
object without ingesting it were not counted as this behavior was not considered pica.
The pica cats exhibited significantly more vomiting along with other digestive signs
than the non pica cats. Further findings showed the pica cats preferred shoelaces,
thread and plastic to fabrics. Fewer cats in the pica group had continuous free access
(“ad libitum”) to food compared with the non pica cats where more cats did have
continuous access to food. The authors raise the questions: “does hunger play a role in
pica behavior? Is ad libitum feeding protective of pica?”
These two studies are valuable as we begin to investigate associations with
environmental forces and pica. More studies are necessary to look at what other factors
are significant for pica along with what interventions are the most successful.
In both of the studies stress and lack of choice and control can also be implicated as
factors, whether due to change in home environment or in being denied access to food.
Stress occasioned behaviors may serve in someway to allow the animal to cope with the
stress. It is inherently difficult, if not impossible, to tease out from observation what
the benefit of pica is for the cat that performs it. Perhaps the act of suckling, chewing
or ingesting an inedible object in its more work –more time performed in the suckling,
chewing or ingesting- is rewarding or soothing. Or the fabric consumed is wonderfully
redolent of the scent of the owner and this is rewarding. Perhaps the prolonged
suckling, chewing or ingesting is reminiscent of the comfort and sustenance found in
nursing from the mother. The cat alone knows the why we can only guess and do our
work in mitigating stress which may relieve the need to perform the behavior.
Not every cat that experiences stressful events will perform pica but this does not mean
that these cats are not stressed. Pica is a behavior that may be harmful to a cat even as
it may be stress relieving. Managing the cat’s environment to limit access to those
inedible objects targeted is the first step in working with this behavior, relieving the
stress and offering opportunities for other behaviors are the next steps.
The following plan of action is most effective when implemented and given time to
work. Remember that cats wear a different watch than we do and need sufficient time
to trust the improved environment:
Manage the environment: Limit the opportunity to consume inedible objects. If the
cat consumes plastic, do not leave any lying around. Similarly, if the cat is chewing
socks, shirts or shoelaces make sure these are inaccessible. Be a detective in figuring
out what the cat is targeting and how to remove those objects from the environment.
Lessening the occurrence of the behavior is the first step in managing it. The next step
has to be addressing whatever function or relief the action is providing.
Remove any punishment: whether in your body language or the simplest
admonition to more aversive strategies such as spray bottles. Punishment is not
effective with cats as it increases stress, exacerbates an existing situation and creates a
negative association with the human involved and not just the action. Additionally no
punishment is effective as a deterrent unless it is performed at the exact moment of the
behavior and if it is not continually increased which impacts welfare.
Modify behavior through learning, interactions and environment: Know that
to modify or change a behavior you need to offer a behavior that is equally satisfying
or rewarding and to allow for the place, learning and opportunity to perform that
Offer cats an enriched home environment with the appropriate cat furniture such as
raised resting spaces, multiple cat beds with at least three raised sides, places to hide
(from cardboard boxes to cat igloos), scratching posts, cat toys for solitary object play
and classical music.
Utilize fountains for water sources and place away from food- in a natural environment
cats will seek out fresh water sources away from prey they have consumed
Look to a cat’s natural hunting behavior and provide puzzle food feeders to engage cats
in those behaviors which stimulate cognition, problem solving and are intrinsically
rewarding. Puzzle feeders may also serve to address hunger or choice issues with food
which was implicated as a probable cause of pica in one of the studies mentioned.
Implement and do not neglect daily interactive play sessions with humans with fishing
wand toys to stimulate and encourage play activity with all the helpful endorphins
and neural firings of joyful and stress reliving activity.
Looking at and instituting at ways to improve welfare and lessen stress contribute to
the quality of life of all the cats we know.
Bradshaw, J.W.S., P.F. Neville and D. Sawyer. (1997). Factors affecting pica in the domestic cat. Applied
Animal Behaviour Science, 52, 373-379
Demontigny-Bedard, I., G. Beauchamp, M.C. Belanger and D. Frank, (2016). Characterization of pica
and chewing behaviors in privately owned cats: a case controlled study. Journal of Feline Medicine and
Surgery, 18(8), 652-7
"It is inherently difficult, if not
impossible, to tease out from
observation what the benefit of pica
is for the cat that performs it.
Perhaps the act of suckling, chewing
or ingesting an inedible object in its
more work –more time performed in
the suckling, chewing or ingesting- is
rewarding or soothing. Or the fabric
consumed is wonderfully redolent of
the scent of the owner and this is
rewarding. Perhaps the prolonged
suckling, chewing or ingesting is
reminiscent of the comfort and
sustenance found in nursing from the
mother. The cat alone knows the
why we can only guess and do our
work in mitigating stress which may
relieve the need to perform the
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
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