-How to Know If Your Cat’s Bad Habit Is Bad For His Health
Cats like to eat. You might have noticed.
Yours might get extra loud at feeding time, or beg for scraps at the dinner table. He might bring you a dead mouse in his mouth, or go crazy over some catnip.
But what if your furry feline starts chewing on things that aren’t food at all? Wool, houseplants, power cords, rubber bands, plastic bags — why is he doing it? And can it be dangerous?
Turns out, there are several reasons why your cat may have those strange cravings. Here’s how to find out exactly what’s going on.
JUST A BAD HABIT?
Do your cat’s extracurricular chewing habits consist mainly of sucking on wool or cloth? You probably have nothing to worry about.
Many cats who were weaned too early will crave the taste and feel of wool. It reminds them of nursing with their mother. If your cat was weaned before eight weeks of age, this chewing compulsion could be the result.
The urge to nurse after weaning might also have a genetic component. Proud owner of a Persian? Such behavior is particularly common among oriental cats.
You’ll likely see your kitty chewing up the carpet when he is frustrated or stressed — but he could also just be playing. Young kittens and even some adults just like to experiment with tasting new things. They may be adventurous, or they may be bored. But your cat’s curiosity could turn deadly if he bites into the wrong thing.
If your cat simply sticks to sucking on fuzzy knickknacks, though, your biggest problem might be a chewed-up stuffed animal or a tooth-marked set of sheets.
But what if he moves on to actually eating those fabrics?
Pica is a condition that causes your cat to crave items that aren’t food — and it’s pretty common. Cats have been known to eat everything from those wooly fabrics to kitty litter, grass, and paper.
No one really knows what causes pica in cats, but different cravings might have different causes.
An indoor cat who chews on plants, for instance, might be craving greens; many people believe cats will eat grass to stimulate vomiting and help remove hairballs.
But such behavior can still be dangerous. Many common houseplants are toxic for cats to eat, or can cause severe stomach problems. And eating greens may be an indication that something important is missing in your cat’s diet.
Eating kitty litter could be associated with anemia while chewing on some household items like plastic bags that contain gelatin — which cats can sense — could simply be a dietary craving.
Some other reasons your cat might be exhibiting signs of pica:
- Medical Issues. Pica can be a symptom of something more serious, like feline leukemia or feline immunodeficiency virus. Or it might be associated with a more manageable condition, such as fleas or allergies.
- Mood. Is your cat bored? Stressed? Angry? An understimulated or over-worried cat can become a chewer.
- Genetics. Those same oriental cats predisposed to wool-sucking are also predisposed to pica. Your cat may just be genetically driven to eat inedible objects.
More often than not, your cat’s cravings will stop at sucking. But if he starts ingesting items that aren’t meant to be eaten, that can create a host of gastrointestinal problems. Intestinal blockages can be costly to fix, or even deadly.
The cat who craves greens is at risk of being poisoned by toxic plants, and the one who chews on power cords could bring something heavy down on himself — or bite through the cord and give himself a nasty shock.
If your cat has progressed from sucking and biting to full-fledged swallowing, how can you fix the problem?
SOLVING THE PROBLEM
You’ve identified what your kitty is craving. You want to stop him from eating it. What next? Here are a few suggestions.
- Keep chewable items out of reach. The easiest solution? Hide whatever it is your cat chews on in a drawer, chest, or somewhere else he can’t get to.
- Give your cat something good to chew. Replace the item your cat wants to eat with a chew toy designed specifically for your cat — something with catnip or a treat inside. Does he have a problem eating plants? Keep a small pot of grass or catnip in the house instead of your poisonous flowers.
- Use deterrents. If you just can’t keep your cat from eating things he shouldn’t, try to make them less appealing. Bitter apple spray or cayenne water can make even the most appetizing items inedible for your cat. You can also try spraying your kitty with water when he exhibits his compulsive behavior, or even “booby trap” his favorite item with double-sided tape. Cats hate the stickiness.
- Play with your cat. Your little loved one could just be acting out of boredom. Give him more attention and stimulation, and you may just fix the problem.
- Buy cat-friendly plants. Lilies, English Ivy, Chrysanthemums, mistletoe, oleander — these are just some of the common plants that are toxic to your pets. Try replacing them with something like oat grass, catnip, or catmint.
- Talk to your vet. As always, if you’re truly concerned with something your cat is ingesting, it’s best to talk it over with your veterinarian. Besides ruling out a more serious medical condition, your vet may be able to discuss other options on how to fix your cat’s behavior.
CHEWING ON HIMSELF
Your cat’s most destructive behavior might be chewing on himself, not other objects. That’s because, in addition to causing patchy fur and irritated red spots, the behavior can be a sign of something more serious.
Fleas, allergies, dry skin may be to blame, but it could also be pain that drives your cat to compulsively bite at the same spot.
Your vet can treat your pet for fleas and other parasites, as well as dry skin, and a change in diet can help if allergies are to blame.
But stress, anxiety, and boredom are often the culprits. So-called boredom licking, or psychogenic alopecia, can be alleviated by adding another pet.
Inedible objects aren’t the only things your cat shouldn’t be ingesting. There are plenty of human foods cats may crave, but that could cause them severe harm. Here are a few:
- Chocolate. The bitter stimulant theobromine found in chocolate can cause heart problems or even seizures.
- Alcohol. Even the smallest amounts of alcohol can cause liver and brain damage.
- Caffeine. Coffee, tea, and energy drinks can lead to muscle tremors and heart problems.
- Fat. Raw fats can cause pancreatitis, leading to severe pain for your pet.
- Dairy Products. Cats may love milk, but many are actually lactose intolerant.
- Raw Meat. Vomiting and diarrhea often follow from eating raw meat — not to mention the risk of Salmonella.
- Grapes and raisins. Dogs can contract serious kidney problems when eating these, but cats may be at risk as well.
- Onions and garlic. Raw or cooked, onions can damage a cat’s red blood cells, causing anemia. Garlic and chives can lead to stomach problems.
- Raw Eggs. Apart from the risk of food poisoning, a protein found in egg whites can lead to skin problems in your cat.
Whatever your cat may be eating, and however you want to treat it, you’ll want to have your local vet’s number handy. In case something goes wrong, the closest emergency clinic and the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center are also numbers to know.
Whether it’s wool, grass, or something else, your veterinarian is the best source to tell you whether or not the behavior is merely a harmless habit or a harbinger of something more.