Pica is the behavioral urge to eat nonedible materials. In cats, these items most often include fabrics, elastics such as hair binders, cardboard, paper, and plastic. Young cats are more likely to suffer from pica syndrome. The cause of pica is unknown, but experts speculate that it could be due to a number of causes such as being weaned too young, dietary deficiencies, genetics, boredom, compulsive disorder, or stress. The onset of pica can be as early as 3 months of age and some cats are able to grow out of it by 1-2 years of age.
Although many young cats will chew or tear apart items during play, a pica sufferer will grind the object repeatedly along their back molar teeth before swallowing. This behavior is highly rewarding for susceptible individuals, and they will go to great lengths to seek out material. Oriental breeds are believed to be more likely to suffer from pica due to their predisposition to wool sucking behavior. Wool sucking is when a cat simply sucks on bedding, but this behavior can become addictive and quickly transform into actually ingesting the materials.
My own cat has pica. Her onset for this behavior was about 4 months of age. Her most favored item to chew is fleece and other soft materials. She is 2 years old now and has ingested many blankets and clothing items over that time. One day I came home for lunch and noticed she didn’t eat her morning meal and had no interest in eating, which was alarming for a cat that never misses a meal. I went up to the cat’s room to find many large piles of vomit. I brought her in for radiographs and it was apparent there was material in her GI tract. It was uncertain if the material would be able to pass on its own with a little time, but as the day went on she became less comfortable and more lethargic. Repeated radiographs at 10pm showed the blockage was not going to budge and needed to be removed surgically ASAP. The incident was unexpected and escalated quickly. It was devastating for both me and her. An unexpected incident like this could cost around $1000 or more to treat! Pica syndrome is serious and can end up in surgery or death. Management is critical to reduce the risk. Consult with your veterinarian for suggestions to curb this behavior.
What To Do
Mental/physical stimulation can be helpful if stress is the trigger to self-soothe. A bored cat will look for something to do and that could include chewing and ingesting non-food items. For my cats, I bought them a chicken coop to keep in the back yard. The cats like to lay outside watching the birds for a few minutes each day to occupy their mind. Other ideas to keep cats busy include but are not limited to: puzzle feeders, scratching posts, and interactive toys. Hiding kibbles around their accessible areas can be helpful as well.
Removing all materials that are preferential may be necessary to curb the behavior as well. Sometimes dietary modifications may be beneficial such as an increase in fiber content or larger kibble. Consult with your veterinarian to help find a suitable diet.
Things to Watch
If your cat suffers from pica syndrome, it is important to pay close attention to their eating habits and energy levels to monitor for signs of an intestinal blockage. General listlessness, vomiting, diarrhea, straining to defecate, and disinterest in eating are indicators that a vet visit may be necessary.
If your cat chews on other materials without the grinding or chewing action reminiscent of pica, there may be other factors contributing to this behavior and it is important to mention this to your vet.
Managing pica is not easy but can be achieved; prevention is key! Cats suffering from this syndrome need to be closely monitored to prevent serious illness.
Article by Lindsey Q