Why Does My Cat Keep Chewing on Cardboard?

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  • The package you’ve been waiting for has finally arrived! You rip it open, seize the contents, and toss the box aside.  Before that cardboard even hits the floor, your cat is already rolling around in it. What is it with cats and boxes? 

    First off, cats love enclosed spaces, and cardboard can keep them warm. Some cats, however, have the odd habit of chewing on, or actually eating, the box. We asked Janet Cutler, Ph.D., our Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, to explain why.

    Most likely reasons your cat is chewing on cardboard

    1. Your cat may have Pica Syndrome (Cats chewing on non-food items)

    Pica is an eating disorder that can be seen in animals as well as humans: cats typically chew, and sometimes ingest, non-food items, including fabric (wool), plastic, paper, and plants. Cutler explains: “New chewing could be a sign of many different problems, such as pain (including gastrointestinal), nutritional deficiency, and other conditions. Although rare, pica and other compulsive disorders (ingesting non-food objects) can happen in cats. Intense focus on cardboard and continuously trying to get to it could be a sign of this.” 

    So what could be causing Pica in your cats?
    Pica can occur for a number of different reasons. They include:

    • Serious underlying medical issues: In rare cases, pica could signal a serious medical condition: Pica has been associated with feline leukemia and the feline immunodeficiency virus. It can also be connected to diabetes, brain tumors, hyperthyroidism, and anemia. Dr. Cutler suggests, “Your veterinarian can rule out these medical conditions before assuming that this is behavioral in nature.”
    • Your cat’s mouth hurts: When kittens are teething, it’s normal for them to want to chew on something. You can distract them with chew toys as a healthy alternative. There are some with a woven mesh exterior that are filled with catnip and specifically made for dental purposes. It’s important to note that the suckling behavior of kittens, in which nothing is ingested, is not pica. 
    • Older cats may be prone to periodontal or gum disease and turn to cardboard in an attempt to sooth their sore mouth. Bad breath is an indicator of loose or disintegrating teeth, tartar, or plaque. If your cat’s breath makes you swoon, it’s definitely time to see the vet for a dental exam and cleaning.
    • Nutritional deficiencies: Your vet will be able to rule out a nutritional deficiency. It’s imperative to provide your cat with a complete and well-balanced food made specifically for their species. Otherwise, they may not get enough (or the right amount of) vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Cats that eat litter may be anemic, and those that eat a lot of plant material (even grass) may be trying to tell you that something is missing from their diet. 
    • Genetics: “There could be a genetic predisposition. Certain breeds of cats (especially Oriental breeds) can be prone to chewing on fabrics, but may also chew on other items like cardboard if that isn’t available. Providing these cats appropriate outlets for chewing will often help. This could be cat-safe plants like cat grass or catnip. You could also provide toys that they can chew, such as small dog chew toys. Changing up the type of food to a different texture can also be helpful,” Dr. Cutler stated.
    • Environmental factors: Cats are very sensitive creatures who like things calm and quiet. Environmental factors such as loud noises or disarray in the cat’s surroundings can trigger anxiety. They may also suffer from separation anxiety when you leave. Cats that are stressed in their surroundings with no escape might resort to eating something unusual. The first step is to remove (or hide) the things they are not supposed to eat. The second is to make their territory more amenable by providing an escape route and a safe place for them to hide when they feel threatened. Vertical space is especially effective. If a certain room, such as a sewing room, presents a particular challenge, the obvious solution is to keep that door closed. You’ll need to observe your cat closely in order to determine the source of the anxiety before you can take steps to alleviate it.
    • Behavioral disorders: Other cats get bored easily and may need more mental or physical stimulation. Making time to play with them will help, as will providing healthy alternatives for chewing. Interactive toys may include a chew toy with a treat inside or something that moves or squeaks. A bird feeder outside a window or catio will keep them occupied for quite some time.


    Both anxiety and boredom could lead to a compulsive disorder. It’s important to be aware of how your cat is spending their time and take the necessary means to correct destructive behavior before it gets out of hand. As with almost everything, catching it early will benefit both you and your cat in the long run. Keep in touch with your vet, and know that, as a last resort, medication is available.

    2. Your cat is marking their territory

    In addition to rubbing, cats may chew on or tear off pieces of a box to mark it as their territory. The scent glands on their lips and chin deposit pheromones to let other cats know they have claimed something as their own. Unless a cat swallows the cardboard, there is no reason to be concerned about this behavior.

    3. Your cat is hunting

    Play hunting is another non-threatening activity. Your cat may be using the box as their prey, and as they do with a live catch, they will chew it and tear it apart. Again, unless it is ingested, let them play—as long as you don’t mind cleaning up the mess!

    4. Your cat is creating a hiding place

    Cats love to crouch down and then spring upon their prey. A box is the perfect structure in which to do that. They are hidden until they choose to attack. Your cat may also chomp away at parts of the box to make a peep hole of sorts for a better view of what’s headed their way.

    5. Your cat just likes chewing on cardboard

    As Dr. Cutler testifies, “They like to do it. Many cats like to chew on cardboard, especially when playing or investigating. It could be they like the texture on their teeth or gums, possibly the sound it makes, or possibly the attention they may get from the people in their home when they do so. It is pretty normal for a cat to rub up against some cardboard, chew a little bit, and then settle or walk away. If they aren’t actually eating (ingesting could potentially cause blockages or other problems) the cardboard, and it isn’t bothering you, then you can let them continue, or let them have access to cardboard for short periods of time. Providing toys they can chew, setting up food or treats they have to search for, or using food balls or puzzles can be helpful for many cats to give them alternative ways to explore and play.”

    When do you know it may be Pica?

    Pica can be defined as obsessive licking, nibbling, and the consumption of inedible materials. It may be accompanied by vomiting, diarrhea or constipation, lethargy, changes in appetite, or drooling and oral ulcers. The keyword is consumption, and if it reaches this point, intervention is necessary.

    A trip to the vet can rule out poisoning, dental issues, or an intestinal blockage that would most likely require emergency attention.  

    Is chewing on cardboard safe?

    Simply chewing on cardboard may not be a concern provided the cardboard does not contain any toxins in the glue, ink, or paper the box is constructed from. If you are not sure about the boxing material, be on the safe side and get rid of it. Also be aware of any sharp edges or staples in the box. Should you decide a box is safe, you can allow your cat to play but be on the lookout for any swallowing.

    How can I stop my cat from eating cardboard?

    Dr. Cutler offers this advice:  “Providing alternative things to chew on such as toys, cat-safe plants, and providing opportunities to find and work for their food through puzzles can sometimes help. However, you may need the help of a veterinarian and a certified behavior professional to work with you in these situations.”

    How can I help my cat with Pica Syndrome?

    Your first line of defense is always a veterinary exam. Let them rule out any serious medical causes.

    After that, your job will be to remove the temptations. Hide or do away with the hazardous items your cat likes to eat, and replace them with something that is good for them to chew on. Many houseplants are poisonous to cats, so either give them away or plant them outside. You can replace them with a cat-grass planter which will actually benefit your cat’s digestive system. 

    There are spray or liquid solutions with an extremely bitter taste available that you can apply to forbidden items. They may or may not work for your cat.  Also spend time playing and interacting with your cat by buying or making safe toys that will provide the physical and mental stimulation they need.

    What can I safely give my cat to chew on? 

    Cat toys come in all different shapes, sizes, and materials. Because your cat is an individual, it may take some trial and error to discover your cat’s preferences. Regardless of the toy’s features, look for something specifically made for cats that is durable and can be easily cleaned. Keep in mind that a great deal of a cat’s play involves ‘hunting,’ so toys that mimic that instinct will be best. 

    Spending quality time with your cat will help ward off the stress, boredom, and loneliness that oftentimes precipitates pica. Your relationship will grow stronger—and they may even share their box with you!

    FAQs

    Can my cat digest cardboard?

    While a little bit of cardboard or paper may pass uneventfully through your cat’s digestive system, it would not be broken down and absorbed as true digestion is defined. Larger and thicker amounts will most definitely cause a blockage. 

    How can I tell if my cat’s gums are sore?

    If your cat has sore gums, they may resist eating or cry out when doing so. They may balk at hard food and prefer wet. They will also avoid allowing someone to touch near their mouth, and their weight may be affected. Their breath will most likely smell foul. 

    How do cats mark their territory? 

    Cats mark their territory by rubbing (or biting) people or objects in order to disperse pheromones from the scent glands located along their cheeks and mouth, paw pads, and hind quarters.

    Authors

    • Sue Murray owes her love of cats to two little domestic shorthairs named Scooter and Buttons who showed her that curtains are for climbing, litter is to scatter, nights are for running wildly through the house, and dogs are to hiss at. Sue has rescued or fostered more than 50 felines and enjoys writing about her experiences.

    • Janet Higginson Cutler, PhD, CAAB, is a Certified Cat Behaviorist. She earned her Phd at the University of Guelph, and runs her own cat and dog behavior consulting firm, Landmark Behaviour, in Canada.