Pica and cats –how to help what’s eating them and why
copyright (c) 2021 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 some way 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
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 behavior.
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
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.
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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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