Pica pica is the scientific name of the magpie and describes a behaviour in which actually inedible things are eaten deliberately. One example of this is cats that specifically eat plastic. Depending on the literature consulted, chewing on unsuitable objects such as cables or sucking on fabric or body parts is also referred to as pica.
It is important to distinguish between the accidental ingestion of foreign bodies when playing, which unfortunately occurs more often in cats due to the special nature of their tongue.
Various theses on the development of Pica syndrome.
Pica syndrome has been known in cats for more than 40 years, but it is still unclear why cats consume specific articles such as plastic, hair ties, wool, shoelaces or similar. However, over the course of time some investigations have been carried out. And based on the results, some assumptions have been made. Let’s take a closer look at both first.
Differences between different breeds: Bradshaw et al.1 described in 1997 that oriental cats were proportionally more affected by pica than other cat breeds, with wool being the preferred food. However, it should be mentioned here that oriental cats were also examined. With Frank et. al.2 there was no evidence of a common occurrence in a certain breed, most of the examined cats were domestic cats.
Gender differences: In Bradshaw et al. and Frank et al. there was no noticeable difference between the sexes. With Bamberger and Houpt (2006)3 tomcats were proportionally more affected. Castration did not affect Pica in 84% of the cats examined by Bradshaw et al.
Differences between the husbandry: Pica is more common in indoor than in outdoor cats. Boredom is thought to be caused by a poor environment, lack of social contacts or distracted hunting behaviour. Frank et al. did not find any differences due to environmental enrichment. However, cats in the „Pica group“ seldom dealt with their toys alone. In addition, more outdoor cats than indoor cats were represented in their „Pica Group“.
Genetic predisposition: It is possible that a genetic predisposition may be involved in the development of Pica syndrome. In other words, if any of the parents showed Pica syndrome, experts believe that it is likely that also the offspring consumes unsuitable things.
(Too) early weaning of the kittens: Also a possible explanation for pica is the premature separation from the mother. Frank et al. did not find any evidence that the premature weaning has an influence on the development of Pica syndrome. Nevertheless, kittens should always stay with their mothers and siblings at least until the age of 14 weeks! Based on the latest findings, Haustiger recommends – if possible – moving to a new home not earlier than 16 weeks of age.
Feeding practice: The feeding practice can also have an influence on the development of Pica syndrome. It turned out that cats who have to fast tend to resort to unsuitable material. Cats with access to plants (cat grass) and those that are allowed to satisfy their „chewing needs“ with suitable food, e. g. raw meat in pieces with suitable bones, tended to be less affected. A desire for fibre is also indicated as a possible explanation, but a clear lack of fibre could never be documented.
(Editor’s note: The literature consulted recommends dry food to satisfy the chewing needs by the way, but we would prefer to change over to raw food).
In Frank et al., in the Pica group, fewer cats were fed „ad libitum“ than in the control group.
Neurological disorders: In the hypothalamus, the main control centre of the autonomic nervous system, lies the hunger or appetite centre and the saturation centre of the cat. Neurological disorders of appetite control can lead to unusual preferences for certain materials.
Behavioral disorder / obsessive-compulsive disorder: Some experts see pica as obsessive-compulsive disorder secondary to anxiety.
Gastrointestinal disorders: There are speculations that pica is not to be regarded as a behavioural disorder, but is caused by a gastrointestinal disease or disorder, such as a gastric motility disorder, i. e. problems with the emptying of the stomach. Gastric motility plays an essential role in the sensation of satiety, hunger and fullness. IBD or hookworms are also mentioned as possible causes.
Frank et al. found that gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhoea or constipation were more frequent in the pica group than in the control group. Especially vomiting was much more frequent in the Pica group. However, it was not possible to determine whether the frequent vomiting was a consequence of eating inappropriate things or whether there was a gastrointestinal disorder from the outset. None of the cats in the control group showed more subtle forms of indigestion, such as flatulence, borborygmus („intestinal noises“) or puffing.
Accompanying symptoms of other diseases: Cats with immune-induced hemolytic anemia (IHA) often also show pica symptoms. They eat cat litter, for example. Rarely has Pica been described in connection with pyruvate-kinase deficiency or FIP.
All in all, however, it is still unclear which factors are responsible for the development of Pica syndrome. It is therefore difficult to make life easier for cats with Pica syndrome and their owners.
These things are often consumed by cats with Pica syndrome
In the course of the study by Frank et al. (2015) between August 2012 and February 2014, a seven-page questionnaire was handed out to cat owners dealing with the behaviour of cats with Pica syndrome.
With 91 cats the following distribution resulted (multiple answers were possible):
Shoelaces and other thread-like structures (51 cats)
Plastic (41 cats)
Fabric (39 cats)
Other things (38 cats)
Rubber (28 cats)
Paper or cardboard (24 cats)
Wood (5 cats)
Other things mentioned included toilet paper, hair ties, cotton swabs, adhesive tape, ear plugs, soap, sponge, small pebble, cat litter and dirt.
The above figures refer to cats that consumed the inappropriate things as well. But they also asked what was chewed or sucked on.
Out of 100 cats chewing on things, there were chewing:
73 on plastic
61 on paper
45 on rubber
26 on wood
Sometimes the cats ate some things and chewed on others. A total of 25 cats sucked on fabric, 56% of which ate it.
First appearance of Pica syndrome
Pica syndrome usually occurs within the first year of life and then persists for several years.
Dealing with the „Pica cat“
Living together with a „Pica cat“ can be very nerve-wracking, but it can be well regulated if you take some precautions.
This sometimes reqires to remain consistent, depending on what you are talking about (e. g. hair bands in the bathroom during showering), but once you have got used to it, it actually works quite well.
It is also worth taking a closer look at the various possible explanations for Pica that can be influenced.
Clarify health reasons: If a cat suddenly consumes things that are actually inedible, e. g. cat litter, the first step is to consult a veterinarian to find out the possible health causes.
Improve your cat’s life: The apartment is first of all less attractive than the outside world. Here the cat owner is asked to make sure that no boredom arises.
A secure window, a secured balcony or even an open-air enclosure can provide the cat with new impressions, or new levels can be made accessible to the cat in the apartment (e. g. by building a catwalk).
If the cat lives alone so far, a suitable cat mate would be the first step to remedy the lack of social contacts and boredom. Cats are very social animals and should not live solitary (apart from a few exceptions)!
Please play with your cat. It is advisable, for example, to have the cat work out food or to give the cat the opportunity to use her head during clicker training. Those cats are more satisfied and have less time for other, perhaps undesirable, things.
Cats that start eating or „chewing“ unsuitable things as a result of stress (e. g. when the owner is absent) or fear can be treated for these causes. If necessary, it may be worthwhile to consult a specialist.
Change feeding practices: The cat should be fed as much food as it needs to meet its energy needs. Especially in the case of growing kittens this can be quite a lot of food. It is therefore worth checking whether the current amount of feed is correct or whether it needs to be adjusted if necessary. It can also help to spread the ration over several smaller meals. Experts recommend feeding cats at least 5 times a day.
To get the cat’s teeth to work, larger pieces of raw meat or meaty, cat-friendly bones are suitable if your cat is enthusiastic about it. (Attention: Raw meat alone is not balanced, please inform yourself about the correct raw food, especially if you want to feed more than 20 % meat). Cats also like to chew on objects when changing their teeth, here too, alternatives can help.
Help! My cat ate xxx!
The best preventive measure is not to leave anything lying around that could be dangerous for the cat. If it swallows a foreign body, this can be trouble-free or life-threatening. Depending on the ingestion of foreign bodies, gastrointestinal trauma or even intestinal obstruction may occur.
If your cat has swallowed a foreign body, please consult your veterinarian IN EVERY CASE. Depending on the case, you will be asked to come into the practice or just watch the cat.
(last updated: 19.10.2017)
- J. W. S. Bradshaw, P. F. Neville, D. Sawyer: Factors affecting pica in the domestic cat. 1997. [↩]
- I. Demontigny-Bédard, G. Beauchamp, M. -C. Bélanger, D. Frank: Characterization of pica and chewing behaviors in privately owned cats: a case-control study. 2015. [↩]
- Bamberger M., Houpt KA. Signalment factors, comorbidity, and trends in behaviour diagnoses in cats: 736 cases (1991-2001). 2006 [↩]