What is pica?
The word pica comes from the Latin word for 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, wool etc.
Most people associate pica with the cravings many women experience during pregnancy. However, pica isn’t the exclusive domain of human pregnancy hormones, it can occur in other animals, including cats.
What about wool sucking?
Wool sucking is well known among cat lovers. Many cat owners have heard of wool sucking in cats, particularly oriental breeds such as Siamese and Burmese, who often will suck and eat wool or other items of clothing. The average age of onset is between 4 and 12 months.
The cause still isn’t understood but there are several potential reasons why some cats develop pica:
- Dietary insufficiency, and possibly needing more fibre, minerals or vitamins in their diet.
- Kittens who are separated from their mother too early.
- Polyphagia is the medical term for disorders which cause an increased appetite which includes hyperthyroidism, anemia, acromegaly, Cushing’s syndrome and diabetes.
- Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency.
- Stress and anxiety, changes in the home such as a new baby, changes in routine.
- Attention seeking behaviour, the cat steals and/or chews on an object and the caregiver reacts.
- Genetics as pica and wool sucking are seen most often in Siamese cats.
Is pica dangerous to cats?
It can be as it has the potential to cause a gastrointestinal blockage.
If your cat stops eating, vomits, has diarrhea or becomes lethargic contact your veterinarian immediately.
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.
Obviously, if an underlying medical cause is found, treatment will hopefully resolve the pica.
If a medical cause can not be found, the following options can be of help:
Grow cat-safe plants:
It is common for cats to chew on plants, however, it can prove fatal if the wrong plant is eaten. 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 can eliminate this behaviour in some cats. Speak to your veterinarian before making any changes to your cat’s diet.
A constant supply of dry food may be of help, but only if the cat is not prone to over-eating. Obesity can lead to a number of medical disorders.
Remove attractive targets
If your cat is chewing clothing, remove this from your cat’s reach. Put clothes away in cupboards or drawers so your cat can’t access them.
Offer a replacement
Provide your cat with alternative objects to chew on such as raw (never cooked) bones with some meat still attached. Try to match the texture of the target object with a safe alternative.
Apply a bittering agent
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.
Stress can sometimes trigger pica. Pica often occurs in adolescence and can also 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.
The more time your cat is entertained, the less time it has to engage in inappropriate behaviours such as pica and meet your cat’s needs by providing the five pillars of a healthy feline environment.
Hide cat-friendly treats around the home for your cat to discover. Most pet shops stock games and puzzles which make the cat work for a treat.
A supply of interactive cat toys and a high cat tree close to a window where your cat can watch the outside world.
Schedule daily playtime with your cat with interactive toys the cat can stalk and finish with the kill. Wand toys are best for this. Afterwards, feed the cat a meal.
In some cats who have compulsive eating disorders or anxiety, medical intervention may be necessary with psychoactive medications which includes
- Tricyclic antidepressant (TCA) – Clomipramine
- Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) – Fluoxetine
The cat will start on a low dose which can be increased if there is no improvement. The cat will remain on medication for 6-8 weeks after the pica has resolved.