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Keeping Cats Safe: Pica

10th July 2020

  •   Intelligent Cat Care Blog
Keeping Cats Safe: Pica

Pica is a term used to describe the consumption of non-edible materials.

It’s most common in certain breeds, such as Siamese, Burmese, Tonkinese and other Oriental types, which suggests there may be a genetic component with the trait passing down family lines, but other domestic cats with no known Oriental ancestry can also suffer from pica.

What materials are eaten?

In Oriental breeds pica is predominantly referred to as ‘wool eating’ as this is the most common material chosen. However this can pass to other natural and synthetic fabrics, with some cats preferring one particular texture. Other materials made of rubber, leather, wood, plastic, cellophane, paper and cardboard are also popular.

When does this behaviour occur?

Some kittens at the age of three months or younger are already in the habit of chewing their bedding, but may grow out of this as they mature. For others, the habit can continue well into adulthood and be resistant to intervention.

How do I know if my cat has Pica?

Many cats will chew and tear at objects when playing, but if pieces are torn off they’re not consumed. A cat suffering from Pica will take the object in its mouth and grind repeatedly with the back-molar teeth before swallowing in a sequence that can take just a few seconds. This behaviour is highly rewarding to sufferers and many will go to great lengths to find their favourite materials. It’s not fully understood why, but one theory suggests that the act of chewing causes chemicals to be released in the ‘pica brain’ producing a feeling of intense pleasure and this becomes addictive.

Is Pica dangerous?

Many substances eaten as a result of Pica can’t be digested in the same way as food and there’s a risk it will cause an obstruction in the intestines and require surgery (called a laparotomy) to remove the material (referred to as a ‘foreign body’). Sections of the gut may need to be removed in severe cases but, despite this, cats usually do make a full recovery afterwards.

What signs should I look for if my cat has a blockage?

If you know your cat suffers from pica, it is important to be vigilant and monitor for signs of a blockage in the intestines. These signs are:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • constipation (straining unproductively)
  • general listlessness
What should I do if my cat eats wool or other material?

Sufferers tend to have restricted lifestyle, e.g. those living exclusively indoors, or those that may be particularly susceptible to stress. These cats need a great deal of stimulation to give them things to do that promote behaving in a natural way for the species.

It’s recommended to keep materials that they have a tendency to eat out of reach, and to increase opportunities to play with moving objects, such as fishing rod toys. Some cats also benefit from a change in diet to one with a high fibre content, or the introduction of softened hide stick (normally for small dogs) with a drop of fish oil as an acceptable alternative to chew. Your vet can recommend a diet that may be suitable.

No all pica habits are serious. For cats that idly chew, it can be possible to stop them by using Olbas Oil (eucalyptus oil) or Bitter Apple (that’s used to deter animals from chewing stitches). Keeping the items out of sight might even be enough to manage the problem in these cases.

What if I’ve tried and failed to stop my cat’s pica?

Pica can be very difficult to manage so it’s useful  to consult a behaviour specialist, who will visit your home, assess your cat’s lifestyle and give you suggestions to stimulate your cat and reduce any relevant stressful situations. Your vet may prescribe an antidepressant drug if your cat is highly motivated to consume non-edible material that will work alongside the behaviour therapy that is put into place.

As this behaviour may be inheritable should I inform the breeder?

As there is some evidence to suggest that pica may be genetic it is important for any breeder to be aware of this problem to take the necessary steps, therefore, if your pedigree cat has this problem it would be wise to inform the breeder.

Are there any other pica problems that may affect my cat?

Unusual substances can be eaten or licked as a result of specific cravings associated with diseases, such as hyperthyroidism (tumour of the thyroid gland), cancer, lead poisoning or feline infectious peritonitis. Cats with severe burdens of intestinal parasites or with chronic deficiencies in their diet may also consume non-nutritious material. Most cats eating these substances for medical reasons will also exhibit other behaviours that indicate they are unwell.

My cat eats cat litter, should I be worried?

It is relatively common when kittens are first weaned and toilet trained for them to eat cat litter. Some organic bio-degradable materials will do no intrinsic harm but many clumping clay litters are manufactured using a compound called sodium bentonite, a highly absorbent material that may cause dehydration and respiratory problems if it is eaten or inhaled by kittens. For this reason, it is best to avoid the use of such litter materials when kittens are very young.

If adult cats start to eat clay-based litter this can also indicate the presence of disease, those with anaemia may lick or consume the litter and it would be advisable to seek advice from a veterinarian as a matter of urgency.


Keep up to date with the rest of the Keeping Cats Safe campaign here.

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