Pica: When your pet eats things that aren't food
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 these factors.
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 in.
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!