Does your cat nibble your wool sweaters down to fuzzy nubs? If he
does, you're not alone. Enough animals eat nonfood materials that the
behavior has been given a name—pica. While pica generally isn't
dangerous, it can cause intestinal obstructions if your cat eats too
much. It also can mean the destruction of blankets, clothing,
furniture, and more if it's not controlled.
Pica is defined as an abnormal compulsion to eat things that aren't
usually eaten. It occurs rarely in humans, usually kids who eat the
occasional handful of dirt. It's also a relatively rare phenomenon in
dogs. Some cats, however—particularly Oriental breeds like Siamese and
Burmese—will repeatedly chow on everything from phone cords to shower
curtains, though their most common snack is wool and other fabrics.
There are several theories on why cats like to chew on wool and other
materials. Some behaviorists and veterinarians believe that it starts
when kittens are weaned too early or too abruptly. The kittens then
suck on fabric to soothe themselves; the sucking gradually turns into
chewing. Other veterinary specialists think that dietary deficiencies,
such as a lack of fat or insoluble fiber, drive cats to seek the
missing nutrients in strange foods. Eating inappropriate things may
also be a result of stress, anxiety, or boredom. Neurological
disorders and illnesses such as pancreatitis can also cause this
behavior. Pica may even be caused by a combination of two or more of
How to save your sweaters
Though you may never know exactly why your cat snacks on your favorite
blazer, there are ways you can discourage him.
Deter him. You can make chewed objects unattractive by spraying them
with vinegar, hot-pepper sauce, or bitter apple, a bitter-tasting
liquid you can buy at most pet stores. You can dab a certain brand of
cologne or air freshener on everything you spray; soon your cat will
associate the smell of the cologne with the bad taste and will avoid
chewing any object you've put cologne on. The bad news is that
deterring your cat from chewing one kind of material—your wool
sweaters for example—may simply drive him to find a new favorite
food—such as your leather shoes or your cotton sheets. You may also
need to try one of the ideas below to help end the behavior itself.
Keep your cat occupied. A bored cat is much more likely to start
gnawing than a busy one. Make sure he has plenty to play with, both
when you're home and when you're not. Try leaving him a toy on a
string that hangs from a doorknob, or a ball that dispenses treats or
food when it's played with. Cat trees—tall, carpeted structures with
lots of shelves and arms for your cat to climb—are another good
option. Also, give your cat a long play session (20 minutes or more)
in the evening and another in the morning, if possible. If he's tired
he's less likely to chew.
Help him relax. Stressed-out kitties will engage in strange behaviors
just to calm themselves. If a recent move or a new member or the
household—human or nonhuman—has stirred things up at home, try to keep
things as quiet and familiar as possible. Make sure your cat has
plenty of his favorite toys and blankets around and that he has a
small, comfortable refuge to retreat to when he gets nervous. His cat
carrier, placed in a corner in a closet, may work well.
Supplement his diet. Some cat owners have been able to stop wool
chewing by adding lanolin—an oil found in wool—to their cat's food.
Others have had success mixing a little fiber into the food. Consult
your veterinarian before you change your pet's food, however, as some
dietary changes can cause an upset stomach or other health problems.
Give him healthy things to chew. Try giving your cat smaller, more
frequent feedings, so he'll have something in his bowl when he wants
something to nibble. You might want to try a timed food dispenser,
which you could set to release a small amount of food every few hours.
You can also grow a cat garden so he'll have grass to chew. You can
buy preplanted gardens at some pet stores, or you can grow one
yourself by planting a pot of rye or wheat, with a little catnip mixed
You may need more than one of these techniques-or all of them-to slow
down or eliminate pica, but it can be done. If you need help, your
veterinarian or a behaviorist can design a program to retrain your
fuzzy buddy. Most important is that you be patient, and keep your
sweaters out of reach!