FloridaWild Vet Hospital

Feline Pica: A Perilous and Frustrating Condition

Does your cat enjoy munching on wool? Have you discovered your kitty chowing down on other indigestible items? Are you puzzled by their “bizarre” appetites? If so, this article will shed some light on this very frustrating and potentially dangerous behavior.

Leo (a FloridaWild patient who struggles with pica)

Although these odd habits aren’t all that common, there are some kitties who seem to take delight in eating peculiar objects which can be quite frustrating for their caretakers to understand. I can’t begin to count the number of times that folks have asked me why their cats are magnetically attracted to non-food items; consuming them with apparent gusto. A few of these more popular “delectable” items may range from wool, leather, wood and shoes; to rubber, silk, rubber bands, cellophane, toilet paper, tissues and even children’s plastic toys.

The medical term for this condition is pica. It was derived from the Latin word for “Magpie”; a bird that has notorious, indiscriminate dietary customs. Because many researchers consider pica to have a genetic component, the cats that are more commonly prone to this condition are Siamese, Oriental Shorthairs, Burmese and Birmans. However, mixed breeds are not immune to pica.

Cats with pica seem to possess a passionate zest for licking and sucking on wool, chewing wooden objects, licking or actually eating plastic, paper towels and toilet paper. Although pica is often a behavioral aberration, some experts theorize that it can also be caused by underlying medical conditions such as gastrointestinal disease, nutritional deficiencies, feline leukemia and feline AIDS. Therefore if your cat is eating odd objects, the cat should undergo a thorough veterinary evaluation to first rule out anything physical, before assuming it is behavioral.

As an example, I will never forget my first introduction to feline pica. Many years ago we had a cat named Nemesis. He was a rather high-strung black half–Siamese whose obsession for eating wool truly drove us up the wall.
One evening as my husband was getting ready to take a shower, he draped his brand new, maroon-colored woolen bathrobe over the bed. Shortly after getting out of the shower I heard him utter a blood-curdling shriek; almost scaring me to death. Frantically worried that he might have fallen, I hurriedly ran into the room.

Leo (a FloridaWild patient who struggles with pica)

Once I knew he wasn’t hurt and could see what actually had happened, I just about fell on the floor laughing. I was totally astounded seeing the huge hole in the back of my husband’s bathrobe that Nemesis had ever-so-quickly devoured. It was beyond comical watching my husband strutting around the house modeling his newly “air conditioned” bathrobe.

Of course, we were greatly concerned about the effects this late-evening pica-induced snack might have on Nemesis. Fortunately, our kitty up-chucked a pile of the maroon remnants a few hours later, having no dire consequences.
Even though the underlying cause for this disorder is not yet fully understood, it is by its very nature, extremely dangerous. These indigestible items can become lodged in the cat’s intestines, cause blockages and other extensive damage.

There are several practical and easy first lines of defense which can help prevent your cat from devouring these inedible items. Of course, the most important step is to keep these items safely stashed away and out of reach. Recently, we had another kitty who loved to chew on my stuffed animals. To keep him out of danger and my precious stuffed animals safe, sadly I relegated my collection to the bedroom closet.

Substitute healthy chewable items. Give your cat something else upon which to chew such as cat toy in which treats can be hidden. If your cat is dining on plants, provide cat grass on which she can munch. Apply a strong and unappealing scent such as a citrus scent or bitter apple on the desired inedible items. Most importantly, use interactive play with your cat for 10 minutes twice a day. The exercise will not only entertain her, it will stimulate her hunting instincts, expend her built-up excess energy and it is also a terrific bonding experience.

By: Jo Singer, MSW, CSW, LCSW, (Ret.)

*Picture provided by Leo “The Lionheart”

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