pica disorder in cats
Cat Food and Hydration

Why Does My Cat Eat Things That Aren’t Food? (Pica in Cats)

Cats have a complex, and often confusing, relationship with food. Felines can be fussy about what is placed in their bowl at mealtimes. Despite this, a cat may decline expensive, specialist food and eat something non-edible. This suggests that your cat may have pica.

Pica is a psychological condition, commonly linked with younger cats. It is defined by an overwhelming compulsion to eat non-edible items. Examples include dirt, wool, and plastic bags. Pica is not a disease in itself; it is usually a side effect of something else. Common triggers for pica are nutritional deficiency, stress, pregnancy, and hyperthyroidism.

If your cat has pica, it must be resolved. A cat with pica may eventually experience digestive difficulties when eating non-food items. Learn why your cat is living with pica and treat the cause of the problem.

Why Is Cat Eating Non-Food Items?

Cats explore the world with their mouths. This can sometimes result in cats eating non-edible items. You’ll find this most often with items that smell interesting or unique. A cat typically decides whether to put something in its mouth based on the scent.

Most cats outgrow this behavior by the time they reach adolescence. Adult cats should certainly understand what is safe to eat and what is not. All the same, cats can be found devouring things that have no place in their diet.

Aside from curiosity, your cat may just be hungry. Cats can be fussy about food, but they are also born survivors. If a cat is worried about food, it will find a way to sustain itself. It is rare for a well-loved domesticated cat to feel so insecure, though. It is likelier that your cat has pica.

What Is Pica?

Pica is a compulsion to eat non-edible items. It is a behavior that is frequently linked to another underlying cause. Younger cats are likelier to suffer from the problem, but senior cats can develop pica.

It’s possible that your cat is just hungry, curious, or disoriented. The end result will remain the same. You must prevent your cat from eating something unsafe. You must also learn the cause, though.

You can tell if a cat has pica by the way it interacts with non-food items. The cat will not tear something apart or swallow it straight down. Instead, the item will be ground along the back teeth then swallowed. This promotes a sense of reward in the cat’s brain. Common items that are eaten include:

  • Dirt and soil
  • Wool and fabric
  • Plastic (i.e. plastic grocery bags)
  • Paper and cardboard
  • Elastic bands
  • Candles

Eating insects, or food intended for humans or other animals, are not symptoms of pica. Many cats eat insects and bugs. This is an extension of the feline hunting instinct. Equally, a cat eating human or dog food is likelier to be born of curiosity.

As long as the food is not damaging to the cat, it is not an emergency. Cats can even be fed dog food in an emergency. If your cat is eating strange of unusual household objects, though, action is required.

why does my cat eat garbage?

Is Pica Dangerous for Cats?

Pica, in and of itself, is not life-threatening. The impact of eating items that aren’t food can be fatal, though. Your cat may eat dirt or soil that contains dangerous bacteria. Arguably even likelier is that your cat will eat something that causes a digestive blockage.

If you know that your cat has pica, watch it carefully. Restrict access to anything the cat may eat and keep it indoors. Also watch out for warning signs of digestive difficulties. These include:

  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Sudden loss of appetite
  • Constipation
  • Swollen, distended belly
  • Pain in the belly (verbalizations, refusal to be touched)
  • Lack of interest in grooming
  • Fever or low body temperature (anything above or below 100 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Lethargy and depression

If you notice these symptoms in a cat with pica, seek advice from a vet. If possible, keep a food diary of everything your cat ate and when. X-rays may be required to determine what is causing the problem. Any non-digestible item must be removed from a cat’s stomach. 

What Causes Pica in Cats?

Pica has many possible causes. These vary from physical ailments to phycological distress. It is critical that you observe your cat and understand the cause of its condition.

Some cats are simply genetically predisposed to pica. The behavior is commonly noted in the following breeds:

  • Oriental
  • Burmese
  • Tonkinese
  • Siamese

If your cat falls into these camps, be vigilant about watching for pica. You may need to be particularly strict with any training.

If your cat is very young, do not grow too distressed about pica. As explained by Applied Animal Behavior Science, pica is common in kittens and infantile cats. The cat should outgrow the behavior, though – especially by the time it reaches double figures.

If an older cat is showing signs of pica, there will be usually be a reason. It is your duty as a pet owner to learn what this is. The first step to do is observation, which can lead to necessary lifestyle adjustments.

Early Weaning

Pica can be linked to a cat being weaned too soon. Kittens should not leave their mothers until they are at least eight weeks old. By this time, the cat will have been taught to eat solids.

Kittens separated too soon – or rejected by their mother – often develop pica. The cat is attempting to replicate the experience of suckling and achieving nourishment from a teat. The habit may start with sucking on wall or fabric. This will swiftly graduate to swallowing.

Scientific Reports links early weaning to aggression later in life. If adopting a kitten, ensure that it spent sufficient time with its mother and littermates. A cat that was weaned too soon will need intensive training, likely from a professional behaviorist.

Nutritional Deficiency

Another common explanation for pica is nutritional deficiency. Shortages of iron, zinc, and calcium are most regularly linked. Your cat eats non-food items in an attempt at balancing the vitamins and minerals in its body.

This can be rectified by ensuring that your cat is fed a high-quality, age-appropriate diet. Once a cat reaches ten years of age, nutritional requirements change. Check that your cat’s preferred meal meets all necessary standards.

Wet food is also typically better for resolve food-related issues. If your cat will only eat kibble, consider bringing supplements into its diet. A lack of iron is particularly dangerous, as this leads to anemia.

Pregnancy

Pregnant cats are automatically hungrier than usual. You have heard of the saying, “eating for two” when referring to a pregnant human. Pregnant cats could be eating for as many as thirteen. Look out for signs that your cat is pregnant. These include:

  • Sudden end to an estrus cycle
  • Increased affection toward owners
  • Swollen belly with bright, prominent nipples (aka, “pinking up”)
  • Uncharacteristic aggression toward other cats, especially males
  • Nesting

In addition to hunger, pregnant cats can develop pica through iron deficiency. This complaint has also been identified in pregnant humans. Be mindful of this. Ensure your cat is not eating anything that could hurt her, or her unborn young.

Territoriality

Pica can also be linked to territoriality. The thought process of the cat is simple. If wants to claim an item. In order to do so, it will eat it. This way, no other animal can lay claim to the cat’s treasure.

Manage this by ensuring your cat has its own territory. This means a particular part of the house where the cat will not be disturbed. In addition, assign the cat particularly toys, beds, blankets and other stimulation.

Spaying and neutering will curb a cat’s territorial instincts. These procedures have no impact on pica, though. if your cat continues to eat inappropriately after being fixed, there is another explanation.

Psychological Issues

In many instances, pica stems from a psychological concern for a cat. This will typically be related to the cat’s environment. Watch your cat, considering its lifestyle and the role you play. This may help you pinpoint the cause of your cat’s compulsion to eat inappropriately.

Stress and Boredom

Stress is always harmful to cats, especially older felines. Stress and anxiety place addition pressure on a cat’s heart. In addition, stress can make cats act out of character. A cat will do whatever it can to calm itself down. This can lead to pica.

Many cats find the act of chewing comforting and calming. If you’re fortunate, the cat will settle for chewing. It’s likely that this will eventually lead to swallowing, though. If this becomes a habit, pica will follow, along with the associated risks. Things that can inflict stress upon a cat include:

  • Lack of routine and structure
  • Changes of living situations (including new homes, or lodgers in the property)
  • Constant noise
  • Being left alone for prolonged periods
  • Unsanitary living conditions, including dirty litter trays
  • Bullying from other pets, or neighborhood animals
  • Boredom and lack of stimulation

You need to ensure that your cat leads a calm, interesting and fulfilling life. Build a routine into your cat’s days and ensure it is surrounded by potential stimulation. This can include cat trees, windows to look out of and toys.

In addition, you can manage your cat’s stress using scent. The Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery recommends the use of Feliway spray. Scented candles, particularly lavender and frankincense, are also likely to be effective.

Once your cat calms down, you may find that pica symptoms begin to ease. The cat is no longer seeking out calming influence of chewing and swallowing. It will not take much to trigger your cat again though. Be mindful of what caused such misapprehension.

Attention Seeking

if your cat feels it is not getting enough attention, it will look to rectify this. It is a myth that cats are indifferent to their owners. Cats want your attention and affection. They just want it on their terms. No cat enjoys being ignored.

If your cat feels neglected, it will let you know with verbalizations and body language. These cues include:

  • Meowing which growing increasingly loud and elongated
  • Circling your feet
  • Sitting upon items that you are using
  • Nipping and gentle scratching

If these cues go unnoticed, the cat will take additional action. This may involve acting out. The cat will do something it knows you will stop. For a cat, any attention is good attention, even being told off.

Pica will rarely be the first port of call for an attention-seeking cat. It can arise though, especially if you ignore destructive behaviors. Monitor your cat’s eating habits. Bringing inappropriate items into your presence then eating may be a plea for acknowledgement.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

As discussed, pica is a compulsion. This means that your cat may be living with obsessive compulsive disorder, aka OCD. This condition can be debilitating for felines. It must be managed through a combination of drugs and training.

The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association links feline OCD to stress and anxiety. It can also be a learned behavior, though. Cats are natural imitators. In a multi-pet home, cats can pick up unwelcome habits from other animals. OCD can also be inherited.

If you amount of training helps break your cat’s pica. OCD may be to blame. A professional can run tests that confirm a diagnosis. Feline OCD can be managed with Clomipramine. This is a human antidepressant prescribed under the brand name Anafranil.

Medical Concerns

Health problems vary from the easily resolved to the extremely dangerous. Do not take any chances with your cat’s health.

Intestinal Parasites

Internal parasites, such as tapeworms, can lead to pica in cats. A cat with worms will be hungrier than usual. It may seek nourishment outside of conventional means.

Pica and intestinal parasites can create an unending loop of health issues. A cat with pica will eat dirt. This can lead to a new infestation of tapeworms. This will result in another bout of pica. This, in turn, leads to more worms.

Stay on top of your cat’s worm treatments. Do not wait for your cat to become infested. Prevention is better than cure. Flea infestations can lead to tapeworms, so ensure your cat is also protected from fleas.

Hyperthyroidism

Hyperthyroidism, as explained by the British Small Animal Veterinary Association, is an excessive generation of thyroxine and triiodothyronine hormones. These are created by the thyroid gland, found in a cat’s throat. Hyperthyroidism has many symptoms, including:

  • Bursts of hyperactivity
  • Greasy and unkempt fur
  • Sudden and inexplicable weight loss
  • Urinating outside the litter box
  • Racing heart rate
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Excessive thirst
  • Excessive hunger

It’s the latter that requires particular attention. Hyperthyroid cats develop pica as they are constantly looking to fill the hole in their stomachs. If food is not available, the cat will consume anything it can find.

Hyperthyroidism requires medication to treat. Your cat will need daily pills for the rest of its life. If you provide this medication, your cat can still live a normal life.

Dental Pain

It is rare, but pica can be connected to dental pain. Ordinarily, cats with toothache will avoid putting anything in their mouth. Mild, early-onset dental pain can be an exception, though. The cat may be chewing in an attempt at soothing sore gums.

This behavior is similar to that of a teething kitten. The cat does not initially intend to eat – just chew. The cat may end up swallowing the item though, whether by accident or design. This can then become a habit.

If a cat is pawing at its face, refuses food and drools excessively, see a vet. These are signs of dental pain, usually caused by gum disease. If the cat is also chewing on non-food items, escalate the appointment. The earlier you seek treatment, the happier you cat will be.

why does my cat eat paper and cardboard?

Cognitive Decline

As cats grow older, their critical faculties start to fade. If a cat is aged 15 or older, it may have cognitive dysfunction syndrome. The Journal of Veterinary Behavior compares this to Alzheimer’s disease.

Cats with this condition grow increasingly disoriented. This may lead to pica. The cat is losing track of what it should and should not be eating. Cats with cognitive decline also experience reversed sleep-wake cycles and personality changes.

There is no cure for cognitive decline in senior cats. You can slow down the impact, though. You must keep your cat’s mind as active as possible. Regularly play with and speak to your cat and encourage interaction. A vet can also prescribe drugs to further delay the onset.

Brain Tumors

Entering the more extreme end of possible explanations, brain tumors can lead to pica. You need to eradicate countless other possible explanations first. Meningioma, or brain cancer, can arise in cats though.

The symptoms of a brain tumor are not dissimilar to an ear infection. Your cat will likely display the following behaviors:

  • Head tilting
  • Lack of coordination in movement
  • Restlessness
  • Disorientation

A cat with a brain tumor will also likely experience seizures. These will typically be short but may become increasingly frequent. Have a cat investigated if it starts to have seizures. The earlier a cancerous tumor is removed, the better a cat’s prognosis.

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) or Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV)

Both these conditions are fatal for cats. Pica is among the symptoms, but arguably the least of your cat’s concerns. Thankfully, vaccinations are readily available to protect your cat from both issues.

The Journal of Virology describes FIV as, “an AIDS-like illness in cats.” As the name suggests, this condition compromises a cat’s immune system. This makes the cat susceptible to sickness that it would ordinarily fight off.

FeLV, meanwhile, is a contagious retrovirus. Again, the clue as to the impact of this illness is in the name. FeLV permits cancerous cells to take hold in a cat’s body. It also weakens immunity against infections that would ordinarily raise little concern.

As these issues lead to pica, eating inappropriate items increases the risk. A cat may inadvertently consume dangerous ingredients, including bacteria or fungi. This can lead to a deadly infection that a healthy cat would fight off.  

Senior cats, in particular, must be protected from FIV and FeLV. Ensure that your cat is vaccinated and receives annual boosters. This will drastically reduce your cat’s risk of contracting these deadly illnesses.

Can Pica in Cats Be Cured?

Resolving pica revolves around identifying the cause and treating that. Taking a, “wait and see” approach is inadvisable unless a cat is young. If a cat has not outgrown pica by the age of two, it is unlikely to do so.

Your first step will be to stop your cat from eating anything in appropriate in the moment. Devise a strong, unmistakable command word. “Stop” is fine, if you do not use this in other circumstances.

Cats must understand that safety commands differ from being told not to behave inappropriately. Ensure your pica-related words are not used if your cat is climbing on furniture, for example. Consider the use of a whistle instead of a verbal command.

This will stop your cat from eating something inappropriate. It’s a short-term fix for a long-term problem, though.  Pica is a compulsion, akin to an addition. It’s only a matter of time before your cat finds something else to eat. Identify the cause of the issue from the list above and resolve it.

Feline pica is more common that many cat owners realize. If your cat has pica, take it seriously. While pica is occasionally idiopathic, it usually has an explanation based in the cat’s health or environment. Fortunately, this usually means the behavior can be resolved.