Unusual Cat Cravings: Why Is My Cat Eating That?

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Unusual Cat Cravings: Why Is My Cat Eating That?

WebMD discusses odd eating behavior in cats and explains some of the reasons that might lead to unusual cravings in cats.

By Wendy C. Fries
WebMD Pet Health Feature

Reviewed by Elizabeth A. Martinez, DVM

Some cat cravings are easy to understand: Cream, catnip, mice ... we get that. But plastic bags, houseplants, wool, paper, rubber bands? Why on earth would a cat eat those? We went to the experts for insights into unusual cat cravings.

Cat Cravings: Strange Things Cats Eat

The urge to eat non-food items -- called pica -- can be pretty common in cats.

Many cats will nurse on wool, says Arnold Plotnick MS, DVM, ACVIM, a veterinary internist and feline specialist in New York. Oriental cats “are predisposed to that.” It also may appear in cats who were weaned too early. The younger a cat is weaned, the stronger its drive to nurse, and the more likely the cat is to suck on wool -- or its owner's arms, earlobes, or hair. Although some cats may only suck on such fuzzy items as wool, fleece, and stuffed animals, others progress to actually eating these fabrics.

Other cats move on to eating stranger items still, such as shoelaces, paper, plastic goods like grocery bags and shower curtains, even electrical cords, says Nicholas H. Dodman, section head and program director of Animal Behavior at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and author of The Cat Who Cried for Help.

What Causes Unusual Cat Cravings?

“I wish I knew the answer to that one,” Plotnick says. Cat pica may be caused by many things, experts say, including:

  • Dietary deficiencies: Some cats will eat their cat litter if they're anemic, Plotnick tells WebMD. “I've had two cases with cats with anemia, and that was one of the signs.” And although it's normal for cats to eat a little grass, eating a lot of plant material may indicate something's missing from the cat's diet.
  • Medical problems: Cat pica is also associated with feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus, and it may be triggered by conditions like diabetes or brain tumors.
  • Genetic predisposition: For some cats, pica appears to be in their genes. For example, wool sucking, sometimes a precursor to pica, is seen more frequently in Siamese and Birman cats, says Alice Moon-Fanelli, PhD, CAAB, a certified applied animal behaviorist researching wool sucking at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.
  • Environmental factors: Is the cat bored or seeking attention? Does he need more mental or physical stimulation? “Some cats require more environmental stimulation than others,” Moon-Fanelli says.
  • Compulsive disorder: Once other possibilities are ruled out, “we start to investigate whether the behavior may be a compulsive disorder,” Moon-Fanelli tells WebMD. “We think it may have a genetic basis, because we do see it occurring more frequently in certain breeds.”

Though feline pica shows up most frequently in young cats, it can appear in older cats as well. When that happens, says Moon-Fanelli, “my first thought is, ‘Is there an underlying medical cause, or stressful changes in the environment that would precipitate this sort of behavior?'”

When Cat Cravings Become a Problem

If a cat simply sucks on wool or other soft and fuzzy items, that's usually not a problem, say the experts. And while nibbling on a bit of paper, or occasionally chewing on a plastic bag -- some of which contain gelatin, which cats can sense -- could simply be a harmless little quirk, “it's hard to know,” Plotnick says. “If your cat is eating something odd, they should first be seen by a vet.”

Not every cat will progress from sucking wool to eating rubber bands, but some do. And once they start ingesting inedible materials, “it is a concern,” Moon-Fanelli says. That's because these indigestible items could lead to intestinal blockages, “which could be horribly expensive at best, and deadly at worst.”

But what about grass? Although many people think cats eat grass to stimulate vomiting -- and relieve hairballs -- they'll also tell you that grass-eating for some cats may eventually progress to chewing on houseplants. This habit can be dangerous, because many houseplants, such as lilies, tulips, chrysanthemums, and English ivy, are poisonous to cats.

What Can You Do to Curb Odd Cat Cravings?

Always talk with your veterinarian first, to rule out serious medical causes for cat pica. Then discuss with your vet ways to discourage your cat from eating non-food items. The experts at the William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at University of California, Davis, as well as vets and animal behaviorists, suggest:

  • Remove targeted items. The easiest solution may be simply to hide the clothes, plants, or other items your cat loves to chew on.
  • Give your cat something else to chew. Divert your cat's need to chew to safer, more appropriate things like cat toys inside which you can hide an edible treat or some other appealing item made specifically for cats.
  • To keep grass-eating cats from sampling houseplants, try growing catnip or a small pot of grass for your cat to nibble on. But keep watch. “Sometimes a cat ends up eating the potting material as well as the grass,” says Moon-Fanelli. The result? Diarrhea.
  • Play with your cat. Some cats who chew are just bored or lonely. So make time for your attention-starved feline friend by giving her more mental or physical stimulation. You could train your cat to wear a harness and teach her to take walks, suggests Moon-Fanelli. Other cats enjoy outdoor enclosures, where they can watch birds and other stimulating things.
  • Make appealing items unappealing. Applying strong-smelling substances like citrus air-freshener, or foul-tasting things like hot sauce, Bandguard®, or Bitter Apple® to items like power cords can cause a cat to steer clear.
  • Get rid of dangerous plants. If your cat is attracted to houseplants, get rid of those that are considered toxic to pets. You can find out which plants are poisonous to cats at the web site of the ASPCA.
  • Talk to an animal behaviorist. If your cat continues to eat non-food items and you know it's not a medical issue, look for a certified applied animal behaviorist (CAAB), suggests Moon-Fanelli. Many CAABs offer remote consultations and can work closely with your own veterinarian.

But be patient. “Everyone wants a step one, two, three to treat behavior,” says Moon-Fanelli, yet behavior is quite complex, and “there's no one-size-fits-all treatment. Every cat is an individual, and every environment is somewhat different.”

Cats nibbling on teddy bears or chewing on string can look pretty cute, but the result can be anything but. Don't wait for a life-threatening intestinal blockage or an underlying medical problem to come to the fore before talking to your vet about your cat's unusual cravings.

SOURCES:

Alice Moon-Fanelli, PhD, certified applied animal behaviorist, Animal Behavior Consultations, LLC, Brooklyn Veterinary Hospital, Brooklyn, Connecticut; clinical assistant professor, department of clinical sciences, animal behavior, Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

Arnold Plotnick, MS, DVM, Dip. ACVIM, veterinary internist, feline specialist, Manhattan Cat Specialists.

Nicholas H. Dodman, section head and program director, animal behavior, Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, author The Cat Who Cried for Help.

University of California School, Davis, William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, “Pica: The Un-finicky Feline.”

ASPCA, “17 Poisonous Plants.”

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Reviewed on 12/3/2009 11:29:58 AM

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