Pica and cats –how to help what’s eating them and why (c) 2016 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 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 by 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 soiurces 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.
For more information: 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
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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 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.
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copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen