Cats that start eating strange items, such as their cat litter, must be checked by a vet. It can be a symptom of illness.
There are cats that eat strange substances like cardboard, wool, plastic, rubber, paper and cotton. Some cats chew and rip but don’t eat and some cats just lick these odd materials. This behaviour mainly starts in the first year of life and may coincide with the time the kitten goes to a new home (Bradshaw et al. 1997).
Sometimes eating strange things (like telephone wires) is a cat’s way of getting attention. The cat chews on the wire, the anxious owner lifts it away from the wire, and the cat has got its owner’s attention. Therefore, if the cat looks at you while it is beginning to eat, turn your eyes away and walk out of the rooom. This takes nerve if you are worrying about the animal being electrocuted. If you do this every time the cat starts chewing at the substance, the behaviour should stop – if it is an attention seeking behaviour.
However, some cats will eat strange items when their owners are not present. One theory is that eating strange things like wool or cotton may be a disorder of the cat’s natural hunting behaviour which is to stalk, pounce, tear off feathers and skin, and eat. Not only does skin and feathers pass through the cat’s stomach, but the cat has an instinct to do the tearing and plucking before swallowing.
Some pet cats get compulsive about this part of the predatory sequence – tearing off feathers and skin bit and swallowing it all. Since ordinary cat food gives no chance of tearing and ripping, the cat looks for this somewhere else. They will tear and rip and then eat — wool, cotton, paper, cardboard, wicker baskets, etc. Some cats go out and steal soft toys, bring them home and tear them – imitating the whole hunting sequence with teddy-bear prey!
The danger from eating wool and other materials etc is that they will get an internal blockage. One Burmese had seven stomach ops to get rid of blockages caused by eating tea cloths and woolly jumpers.
These wool eaters (often pedigree breeds) need help urgently. Experts sometimes suggest feeding high fibre food, gristly meat, and frequent meals in the hope that this will make the cats feel their tummies are full and they would have lots of chance to chew. I know of no proper scientific investigation into the treatment of this disorder.
Another suggestion is to supply something closer to nature — something for your cat to tear and shred (Neville, 1998). Peter Neville, the expert on this behaviour, suggests getting dead whole turkey chicks, day-old chicks or dead whole rats sold frozen by pet shops for reptiles. If these aren’t available try the frozen dead mice. Or, if all else fails, see if you can buy hens with their feathers still on from a local farm shop.
These should be a part of the cat’s diet, eaten in a room like a bathroom where blood won’t get on the carpet! If this idea turns you off, try a dog chew softened in warm water. Rolling this in tuna might get the cat started on it, if it’s not very keen. If you want to add a little dry food on top of this (only a minority part of the diet) do so in a foraging toy, where the cat has to work to get the dried food out.
Although the whole idea of dead rodents/chicks is disgusting to humans, these may be the only way you can cure your cat of what may be a dangerous disorder. Cats who have been wool-eating for only a few months may recover completely on this diet. Cats who have been wool-eating for years may still wool-eat. Give it a month before you decide it hasn’t worked; sometimes it takes a bit of time for the cat to realise it doesn’t need to eat wool.
It is also important to try and give the cat the chance to hunt! Many wool-eaters are indoor cats, so get a fishing rod toy or just a piece of string , and try to give the cat 30 pounces on this every day. NEVER breed from a cat who eats wool – it may be a hereditary disorder.
It is always worth checking whether the cat’s environment can be improved, since it may be that stress may play a part in triggering or maintaining this disorder. Stress can be caused by boredom, anxiety about cats outside, anxiety about cat companions, changes in routine, moving home etc. Read Reasons why your cat feels stressed and unhappy.
Never punish, as this will just add to the stress (Casey 2009). Providing a calm environment and rewarding good behaviour (ie. times when not indulging in pica) may be helpful (Mongillo et al., 2012). Medication may also help, but a small survey of cats suggests that it is difficult to find a way of stopping this behaviour altogether (Overall 2002).
If you do think there is something that triggers the cat to eat wool, start keeping a diary to see if it really is a trigger or not. Armed with this information, contact a pet behaviour counsellor.
NOTE ON SALMONELLA
Day old chicks, mice etc. or any uncooked meat can carry salmonella so wash your hands after handling them, and do not let your cat lick round your mouth or hands after eating them. The risk of feeding them is probably no more than the risk that your cat might pick up a salmonella bug from mice or birds, but if you think your cat is ill, call a vet. Immuno compromised or pregnant humans should take expert advice before feeding this diet. Check with your vet before feeding raw food to an mmuno-compromised or sick cat.
Bradshaw J.W. S., Neville P., & Sawyer D., (1997), ‘ Factors affecting pica in the domestic cat,’ Applied Animal Behaviour, 52, 373-379
Casey, R., (2009), ‘Management problems in cats’, in eds Horwitz, D. F. & Mills, D. S., BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine, Second Edition, Quedgeley, Gloucestershire, BSAVA.
Mongillo, P., Adamelli, S., Bernardini, M., Fraccaoli, E. & Marinelli, L., (2012), Successful treatment of abnormal feeding behaviour in a cat’, Journal of Veterinary Behavior, corrected proof.
Neville, P., (1998) Practical Aspects of Companion Animal Behaviour and Training course notes, Centre of Applied Pet Ethology.
Overall, K. L. & Dunham, A. E. (2002), ‘Clinical features and outcome in dogs and cats with obsessive compulsive disorder: 128 cases (1989-2000), JAVMA, 221, 1446-1452
These notes are my copyright. I am also usually happy to have the exact words reproduced on websites, in return for a link, my name, and if permission is asked beforehand. I like to check the websites where it might be used. Email me via this website for permission which will usually be given. Organisations wishing to use them in print should contact me via this website. Copyright © 2007 Celia Haddon. All Rights Reserved.
All normal safety precautions should be taken when dealing with animals. The advice in this section should be taken only at the owner’s own risk. All sick animals should be seen by a vet.
General advice of the kind found in this website is no substitute for an individual consultation with a vet or qualified behaviourist working on a vet’s referral.