Pica and cats –how to help what’s eating them and why (c) 2016-2018 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 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
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.
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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,
"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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