Hard-to-swallow behavior – Case Notes – when cats chew and suck on non-food items

Hard-to-swallow behavior – Case Notes – when cats chew and suck on non-food items – Brief Article

Kelley Bollen

Our one-year-old cat, Pooka, chews and sucks on all kinds of weird things–string, clothing, rubber bands, electrical cords, wooden chair legs, and any plastic item she can find. She purrs and rolls around on her back while doing this. Why does she do this, and how can we get her to stop? We worry she will eat something that will hurt her.

Judging by the calls I field, the behaviors you describe, pica (ingesting nonfood items) and wool sucking, are more common than you might think. Wool sucking, in particular, is prevalent in the oriental breeds, such as the Siamese, Burmese, and Himalayan. Many cats regardless of breed, however, exhibit these aberrant behaviors. We really don’t know exactly why cats chew, suck on, and ingest strange items, but there are many theories. The underlying cause may be different in each affected cat, so each conjecture may have merit.

The fact that certain breeds are more susceptible indicates there may be a genetic component, at least in those breeds. Some theorists suggest that kittens that are undernourished, weaned too early (between 2 and 4 weeks), or orphaned and bottle-fed by humans are more likely to develop a propensity for non-nutritional sucking and chewing. The oriental breeds typically nurse longer than other breeds (16 weeks), and they are rarely kept with their mothers this long.

Some have wondered whether a nutritional deficiency is at play. They suspect that cats engaging in pica and wool sucking crave fiber or roughage.

Yet another explanation is that these abnormalities are comfort-seeking behaviors. The methodical sucking and chewing may prompt the release of endorphins, stress-relieving neurochemicals. Anxious cats or those exposed to stressful environmental events may use these behaviors as a coping mechanism. Such self-reinforcing behaviors sometimes develop into obsessive-compulsive drives that the animal has little or no control over.

The first thing to do is take Pooka to her veterinarian to rule out any possible medical causes for her behavior. Gastrointestinal disorders (parasitism, inflammatory bowel disease, food allergies) and endocrine disease (diabetes, kidney, and thyroid problems) are among the medical conditions that could contribute to this behavior.

Next, always keep some high-fiber dry cat food in Pooka’s bowl so that she constantly has something available to crunch on. Popcorn, a low-calorie, high-fiber treat, can also be offered. Providing a daily main meal of a high-bulk canned cat food or even a side dish of some romaine lettuce will give her the feeling of having a full stomach, which also may help. To satisfy Pooka’s need to chew, offer rawhide chew sticks or marrow bones.

Environmental enrichment in the form of toys, treat dispensers, and scheduled interactive play sessions will help keep Pooka busy and entertained. Playing with a feather dancer or chasing a ball, a wad of paper, or a beam of light from a flashlight or laser pointer should help your cat release some of the energy she now spends chewing inappropriate items.

If you think Pooka’s chewing and sucking stems from anxiety, try to reduce the stress in her life or desensitize her to stressors that cannot be removed. Your veterinarian may prescribe an antianxiety medication. These drugs, which also have antiobsessional properties, may offer relief in cases that have developed into compulsive disorders.

The last part of the treatment program for Pooka will be to discourage her from chewing and sucking on the inappropriate items. Remote punishment is the preferred method. Physical punishment of any kind–especially after the fact–can make the problem worse, since this will inevitably add stress to the cat’s life.

Let the environment do the discouraging. Coat the items your pet likes to chew with an aversive taste such as menthol, cayenne pepper, or citrus or with a commercial product called Bitter Apple. Couple the aversive taste with the smell of cologne, sprayed on items such as clothing or bedding, to further discourage the chewing. Booby traps designed to startle the cat when she goes near the items can be very effective. A strategically placed motion detector, an upside-down mousetrap enclosed in a paper bag, or a pyramid of empty soda cans that fall when disturbed are a few ideas.

Pica and wool sucking are disturbing and potentially dangerous behaviors that are often difficult to resolve. Hopefully, by implementing the above program you’ll be able to help Pooka lick her problem instead of the blanket.


Kelley Bollen, the MSPCA’s shelter animal behavior consultant, can offer advice that’ll help both you and your pet feel better. Write to Case Notes, Animals, 350 South Huntington Ave., Boston, MA 02130. Fax us at (617) 522-4885 or e-mail casenotes@animalsmagazine.com.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

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