What is pica?
The word pica comes from the Latin word for magpie, which is known to eat almost anything. Pica in cats is a potentially serious condition where they have an abnormal compulsion to eat non-food substances such as clothing, plastic, wool etc. The preferred food choice is generally reserved for the same object.
Most people associate pica with the cravings many women experience during pregnancy. However, pica isn’t the exclusive domain of human pregnancy hormones; it can occur in other animals, including cats.
Wool sucking is a form of pica with a higher incidence in the Siamese, Burmese and outcrosses. Affected cats will suck and eat wool or other items of clothing. The average age of onset is between 4 and 12 months.
Both pica and wool-sucking are forms of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Several medical conditions can lead to inappropriately chewing and eating non-food objects which need to be ruled out before a diagnosis of pica is made.
- Dietary insufficiency, and possibly needing more fibre, minerals or vitamins in their diet.
- Polyphagia is the medical term for disorders that cause an increased appetite, which includes hyperthyroidism, anemia, acromegaly, Cushing’s syndrome and diabetes.
- Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency.
- Teething in kittens.
- Oral (dental) pain.
- Senility and central nervous system disorders.
Once an underlying cause has been ruled out, a diagnosis of pica can be made. There are several underlying causes of why a cat develops an obsessive-compulsive disorder.
- Stress and anxiety can cause the cat to redirect their stress onto unusual eating behaviours.
- Kittens are separated from their mother too early.
- Boredom and lack of environmental enrichment.
- Attention seeking behaviour, the cat, steals or chews on an object and the caregiver reacts.
- Genetics as pica and wool sucking is seen most often in Siamese cats.
Is pica dangerous to cats?
Ingestion of non-digestible objects can lead to a gastrointestinal blockage that prevents food from passing through the digestive tract and can lead to necrosis (death) of the intestines.
Linear objects such as string or wool can cause a plication or folding of the intestines when one end becomes lodged at the base of the tongue or the pylorus (the exit from the stomach into the small intestine). Peristalsis (wave-like contractions) propel the free end along the GI tract but because the object is anchored and cannot move the GI tract creeps up the trailing part and becomes plicated (folded).
Poisoning can occur if the target is toxic to cats. Examples include poisonous plants or cleaning products.
If your cat stops eating, vomits, has diarrhea or becomes lethargic contact your veterinarian immediately.
A cat with pica or wool sucking should be evaluated by a veterinarian for a thorough physical examination to rule out a medical problem.
Baseline tests which include biochemical profile, complete blood count and urinalysis can help to evaluate the overall health of the cat.
If a medical cause cannot be determined, then behavioural modification will be necessary and in some cases, drug therapy.
Related content: Five pillars of a healthy feline environment.
Grow cat-safe plants: It is normal for cats to chew on plants; however, it can be fatal if the cat eats a poisonous one. There is no concrete explanation as to why cats chew plants, but some suggestions include that plants contain certain nutrients which are not available in the cat’s regular food, ingestion of plants assists in bringing up hairballs. If your cat has been chewing on the houseplants, the simplest solution is to remove them from your cat’s reach and replace them with cat-friendly plants such as catnip or cat grass.
Feed a well-balanced and good quality diet: A high fibre diet can eliminate this behaviour in some cats. Speak to your veterinarian before making any changes to your cat’s diet. A constant supply of dry food may be of help, but only if the cat is not prone to over-eating. Obesity can lead to several medical disorders.
Remove target items: If your cat is chewing clothing, remove it. Put clothes away in cupboards or drawers or keep the cat confined to an area the target objects aren’t located.
Offer a suitable replacement: Provide the cat with interactive toys; cat chew toys and food puzzles and balls. Teething kittens can benefit from teething toys which can offer relief. Offer chewy foods such as softened dog chews (soaked in water), raw chunks of steak or chicken necks.
Schedule play: Cats can only provide so much entertainment; pet owners need to take the time to play with their cats too. Hunt, kill and eat is a common method that mimics the cat’s natural hunt cycle in the wild. Wand toys are a great choice, which allows the cat to stalk, run and jump at the toy, after some time, allow the cat to catch and kill it (within reason, you don’t want the wand destroyed), and then offer a meal.
Apply a bittering agent: If the targeted item is something, you can’t put away easily, such as electrical cords it may be necessary to paint them with something to deter the cat.
Reduce stress: Stress can sometimes trigger pica. Pica often occurs in adolescence and can also begin when a cat moves into a new home or if there are inter-cat issues in the home.
Keep routines the same and avoid changes where possible. Cats are creatures of habit and don’t like change.
Environmental enrichment: Hide cat-friendly treats around the home for your cat to discover. Most pet shops stock games and puzzles that make the cat work for a treat. A supply of interactive cat toys, cat trees and shelves and access to windows so the cat can watch the world.
In some cats who have compulsive eating disorders or anxiety, medical intervention may be necessary with psychoactive medications which include:
Tricyclic antidepressant (TCA)
- Clomipramine (Anafranil): The exact mechanism of action is not known but it is thought to increase the activity of the neurotransmitter serotonin which contributes to mood regulation and feelings of well-being and happiness.
Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI)
- Fluoxetine: A generic form of Prozac which works by preventing the brain from reabsorbing serotonin. In this way, fluoxetine helps the brain to maintain enough serotonin so that you the cat has a feeling of well-being, resulting from improved communication between brain cells.
The cat will start on a low dose, which can be increased if there is no improvement. It will be necessary to stay on the medication for 6-8 weeks after the pica has resolved.