Pica in Cats – When Your Feline Has UNUSUAL Cravings

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What is Pica in cats? Your veterinarian might have diagnosed your feline’s condition as pica in cats, and you might be worried it is a strange disease. Well, not entirely; your cat just has unusual cravings.

pica in cats

Everyone has unusual cravings – from ice cream late at night to pizza and fries and what have you. But do we need to find unusual cravings in animals? Well, your guess is as good as mine. 

What do you do when your feline companion has unusual cravings? What classifies as unusual cravings? And it is something you could be concerned about? This article would help you answer these questions.

What is Pica Syndrome in Cats?

Pica syndrome is a behavioral condition that incites cats to eat non-edible substances such as paper, fabrics, plastics, etc. In a simpler term – pica is the eating of abnormal substances. 

Pica arises from the Latin word for the magpie -”picave.” This is because magpies have been known to eat almost everything.  Pica can be found in humans and dogs too. 

This syndrome is different from the usual feline play behavior of tearing materials and sprinkling them around the house. This enables them to mimic predatory behavior, which is part of their normal instinct. 

Cats with pica chew the material to a great length before swallowing and just do not create a mess compared to cats without pica. To them, it provides comfort, relief, and entertainment. 

Cats with pica are said to have a compulsive eating disorder. Compulsive behavior is when certain behaviors (such as pica) persists despite the harm caused to the cat.

What You Should Know About Feline Pica

Feline pica is usually common in young cats, but it can occur in cats of all ages. It usually starts around three months, the age around which kittens arrive at their new homes. Some cats might grow out of it, and others do not grow out of it and become highly resistant to change. 

The suckling and licking of items are not known as pica. But it could be the basis for pica syndrome when the cat starts to eat those nonedible items. So pet owners need to differentiate between these two.

Before a cat is diagnosed with pica, it means the syndrome and behavior have been going on for a long time as cats tend to be very secretive. Pica is relatively uncommon in cats. Approximately 2.5% of cats in the United States have pica syndrome. 

A cat suffering from pica syndrome will go to all lengths to find and chew its favorite material. For cats with pica, finding, chewing, and swallowing non-edible materials serve as a rewarding experience.

Chewing and sucking on items releases endorphins, hormones that serve as pain relievers in the body. These endorphins create a soothing and calming effect for the cat and increase the feeling of wellbeing. 

Such as anything that serves as an escape when we are going through something, these endorphin rushes can become addictive, leading to the obsessive and compulsive disorder (OCD) – Pica. 

Wool sucking is very common in oriental cat breeds and has been known to be a predisposition for pica syndrome in such species. 

Pica syndrome can cause blockages in the gastrointestinal tract (stomach and intestine) and lead to vomiting, loss of appetite, diarrhea, restlessness (lethargy), constipation, and can even cause death. Usually, such foreign objects are allowed to pass out with time through the feces or are removed via surgery (laparotomy). Pet owners should be on the look for these signs.

Some house plants (e.g., lilies, tulips, chrysanthemums, English ivy) eaten by cats are poisonous and can significantly harm them. 

Cats with pica syndrome may get electrocuted when they eat wires with an electrical current in them. 

Managing Pica in Your Cat as a Pet Owner

The most reliable way of knowing your cat has pica as a pet owner is to catch your cat in the act, as most of the items eaten would have no traces left. Once you are confident that your cat has pica syndrome, the next stage is managing it. 

For most pet owners, talking to your veterinarian is the first step to do to see if there is any medical condition to be considered. Next, your veterinarian will conduct some tests to rule out any medical condition. If your cat is cleared, your vet will now strategize with you how to get to stop your cat from eating unusual items.  

Engaging your cat can be said to be the next line of action. Stimulating them mentally or physically through puzzle feeders, interactive toys such as fish-pole/rod toys and ping pongs, maze feeders, etc., can help relieve stress or boredom. 

grey and white kitten playing with a toy mouse

You can also play with them regularly to deviate their attention from eating unusual items, a minimum of 30 mins per day. 

Changing their diets can also help curb this behavior. For example, introducing large dry food sizes or food with more fiber in their diet may help solve this problem. 

You can also remove susceptible materials such as paper, plastics, fabrics, etc., from their reach. This can help curb the behavior since there wouldn’t be any non-edible material around to ingest.

Cats can also be given chew toys to chew and play with. You can also smear fish oil on softened hide sticks and give it to them. Cats tend to accept them. 

You can also remove all dangerous plants from your home or put them out of the reach of the cat. This will protect the cat and prevent it from ingesting them.

You can try growing catnip (catswort, catwort, or catmint) in your house for your cat to nibble occasionally. Your cat can also be given plants food with fiber such as wheat, rye, and oats to nibble.

Another strategy is to smear or pour bitter or unappealing substances such as Bitter apple and Eucalyptus oil over the most common ingested substances to deter your cat from chewing them due to their bitter taste. There are commercially available pet repellents on the markets for such purposes. 

Find what is stressing your cat and take action by either removing it or making adjustments. You can provide feline calming products and pheromones such as Feliway to reduce anxiety and help your cat keep calm. 

After you have tried all these and your cat is still eating unusual items, you might need to talk to an animal behaviorist for assistance. They would help you draw out a plan by assessing your and your cat’s environment and your cat’s behavior. 

The Causes of Unusual Cravings in Cats

The exact cause of these unusual cravings is unknown, but there have been many proposed theories. 

The most common suggested cause of cat pica is when the kitten has been weaned too early. Such kittens still have the desire to be nursed and, as such, will begin to suck on items to replace the feeling of suckling the queen. Such tendencies can outgrow into eating non-edible items – pica. 

Other proposed theories include;

  • Stress is also a culprit when it comes to pica in cats. 

We all know what stress does to us and how it sometimes leads us to binge eat. That is precisely how your feline companions also feel, and their binge eating is eating unusual stuff. Stress can be from a noisy environment, a new environment, or moving objects.

  • Diet deficiencies. When the cat is not receiving a balanced meal, it is compelled to look for nourishment elsewhere. Most of the time, these “elsewheres” are not suitable for them. 

Usually, cats with fiber and fat deficiencies are compelled to eat other unsuitable materials. This is because the fiber in food enables the cat to feel full; thus, this deficiency would always make the cat feel hungry. Anemic cats may also eat litter as a way to manage their anemia. 

  • Boredom. When we are bored, we can pick up our phones, play games, go online, browse through social media, call friends, or watch a movie. But, for cats, these are not even options. 

Thus, boredom in cats can lead them to eat unusual things. Sometimes too, it starts as playing with such items, and the next moment, it is down their throats. 

  • Certain medical conditions such as brain tumors, diabetes, feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, anemia, an enormous burden of intestinal parasites, leukemia, pancreatitis, and cancer can also trigger cats to have unusual cravings to satisfy the body’s demand. 

Dental disease may also trigger pica syndrome as the cat might try to soothe the pain in its mouth. Cats with gastrointestinal problems like inflammatory bowel disease and infectious peritonitis can lead cats to nibble unusual items to soothe their ailing stomachs. 

This doesn’t mean all animals with these diseases have pica syndrome, but pica syndrome is mainly associated with these diseases and conditions. Pica syndrome cats with underlying medical conditions will also show additional signs of the illness in question, and the pet owner should be on the look for those signs.

  • Compulsive disorders, which are behavioral problems, have also been said to be part of the reasons which push cats towards the pica syndrome. However, compulsive disorders arise from so many conditions. Some could be genetic, and others could be mere behavioral changes. 
  • Genetics has also been suggested to be the cause of pica syndrome in cats. The breeds predisposed for pica syndrome are the Burmese, Birman, Siamese, Tonkinese, and other oriental cat breeds.
  • Displacement behavior is when a cat is on the crossroad between two emotions – the desire to approach an object and its fear. Usually, this confusion leads the animal to eat unusual items as it seems neutral ground, and it appears safe for them. 
  • Some cats also eat unusual items just to catch or seek their owner’s attention. Pica can also be a learned behavior by associating eating unusual stuff with an event or a reflex action. 

What Classifies as Unusual Items and Cravings For a Cat to Eat?

Anything that is not appropriate for a cat to eat is classified as unusual. Some examples include:

  • Paper
  • Fabrics (the most common is wool)
  • Plastics
  • House plants
  • Shoelaces
  • Rubber bands
  • Stuffed animals
  • Cellophane
  • Soil
  • Litter
  • Wood
  • Electric wires
  • Yarn
  • Shower curtains
  • Strings
  • Leather
  • Wool
  • Phone cords etc.

In summary, anything that is not food might be a potentially unusual item. 

How is Pica in Cats Treated?

As soon as you notice your cat eating something odd, which is not just once but on more than one occasion, you would have to see the veterinarian. They will take blood tests (complete blood count, biochemistry profile), urinalysis, and other imaging and history to rule out any medical condition.

If there is no medical condition, your vet might ask about the nutritional status of your cat and make some dietary adjustments if they suspect that dietary deficiencies cause your cat’s pica. 

Your vet might also recommend an animal behaviorist to help manage the behavior of your pet. 

If all these fail, your veterinarian would recommend drugs such as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants or other antidepressant medications to help with the obsessive-compulsive disorder. This strategy is usually done together with an animal behaviorist. 

Prognosis of Feline Pica 

Pica syndrome can become fatal if a veterinarian does not address it. The prognosis (outcome) is guarded depending on how severe it has gone and how responsive your cat is. Some cats may outgrow it usually by year one or two. Others might need treatment for a lifetime.

There is no cut-in-stone prognosis or magic to make pica disappear. Usually, some of these issues depend on the cat, the environment, and the pet owner’s patience. Unfortunately, Pica can be challenging to manage so, and you need to work extra hard to ensure your cat doesn’t go back to it. 

Prevention of pica is the surest way out of this. Ensure any unusual items are out of reach from your cat, and always check to ensure your cat is receiving a balanced meal and is not undergoing any stress. Stimulate your cat physically and mentally too. 

Feline pica can be very scary and overwhelming. Since this condition is not fairly common, you might think your cat is abnormal. But with the right amount of patience, monitoring, and help, your cat would be back to good health and good behavior. 

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Currently a Veterinary House Officer at the University of Ghana, Akosua plays a pivotal role in disease diagnosis, treatment, and student supervision. Akosua's educational journey in veterinary medicine has been instrumental in shaping her commitment to public education and awareness. Her veterinary training equips her to communicate complex topics for public understanding. Her online presence on Instagram reaches a wider audience. She actively engages in public speaking, inspiring a deeper understanding of responsible pet care and the role of veterinary professionals in fostering a healthier coexistence between humans and animals.