What is pica?
The word pica comes from the Latin word magpie, which is known to eat almost anything. Pica in cats is a potentially serious condition where they have an abnormal compulsion to eat non-food substances such as clothing, plastic, wood etc. Pica is more often thought of as a condition of pregnant women, who occasionally have cravings (and indulge in them) for non-food items such as chalk, dirt etc. However, pica isn't exclusive to pregnant women and it is seen in non-pregnant humans and also animals.
What about wool sucking?
Wool sucking is well known among cat lovers. As the name suggests, it involves the cat (usually Siamese or Siamese mix) sucking and eating wool or other clothing items.
What are the causes of pica?
- There is no firm answer to this question, but several theories have been suggested;
- Dietary insufficiencies, and possibly needing more fibre, minerals or vitamins in their diet.
- Wool sucking may be a result of a cat being weaned too early, and takes to this as a self-soothing mechanism.
- Stress and anxiety.
- Wool sucking is seen more commonly in Siamese and Siamese cross breeds, which suggests that there may be a genetic component to this behaviour.
Is pica dangerous to cats?
It can be. It could lead to poisoning for instance or if a large volume of something is eaten and can't be easily digested it could lead to an intestinal blockage.
If your cat stops eating, vomits has diarrhea or becomes lethargic contact your veterinarian immediately.
What can be done to stop this behaviour?
It is important to take any cat displaying signs of pica to your veterinarian for a thorough physical examination to rule out a medical problem. Your veterinarian may wish to do a complete blood profile to check iron levels, hormone levels, check organ function etc. If no illness or disease is diagnosed you may try the following:
- It is quite common for cats to chew on plants, however, it can prove fatal if the wrong plant is eaten. I'm not completely sure that plant-eating could be entirely classified as pica as it is quite commonly seen in cats. There is no concrete explanation for this but some suggestions include, plants contain certain nutrients which are not available the cat's regular food, ingestion of plants assists in bringing up hairballs. If your cat has been chewing on the houseplants the simplest solution is to remove them from your cat's reach and replace with cat-friendly plants such as catnip or cat grass.
- Feed your cat a well balanced and good quality diet. A high fibre diet has been found to eliminate this behaviour in some cats. Speak to your veterinarian before making any changes to your cat's diet. Also, a constant supply of dry food may be of help.
- If your cat is chewing clothing, remove this from your cat's reach. Make sure clothing is put away in cupboards and drawers where you cat can't access them.
- Providing your cat with alternative objects to chew on such as raw (never cooked) bones with some meat still attached.
- If the targeted item is something you can't put away easily, such as electrical cords it may be necessary to paint them with something to deter your cat from chewing them, such as bitter apple or Tabasco sauce.
- Reducing stress. The onset of this behaviour is sometimes triggered by stress. It has been mentioned that pica often occurs in adolescence and may begin when a cat moves into a new home. Therefore time spent with the cat ensuring it is in as stress-free an environment as possible may help. This includes introducing your new cats to other pets in the household slowly.
- Reducing boredom. The more time your cat is entertained, the less time it has to engage in inappropriate behaviours such as pica. You can try hiding more cat-friendly morsels around the home for your cat to discover. A supply of interactive cat toys and a high cat tree close to a window where your cat can watch the outside world.
- Remote punishment such as using a water pistol when your cat engages in this behaviour.
- If your veterinarian believes that the pica is related to a behavioural disorder which can not be easily remedied then he may recommend medication.
Sometimes this behaviour will resolve itself in time.