Why Do Cats Eat Plastic? The Pica Mystery

I spend a few minutes before bed to make sure all the plastic is hidden from my boy, Foo Foo, who seeks any of it out.   His chewing on things, in general, was very concerning for me because of the vomiting.  My first thought was something medical was wrong or something was stressing him out.  

It didn’t seem normal, and for this, I did some research (it’s your best friend) into the underlying issues that would cause cats to do this.

So, why do cats eat plastic?  Your cat may be eating plastic or other types of things made of plastic because of a condition is known as feline Pica.  It’s a combination of reasons that give your cat the tendency to chew and eat non-food items. They also could be attracted to plastic because of its scent, dental disease, stress or boredom.

To be frank, there isn’t any medical science to state the actual reason why cats eat or chew on plastic.

my orange tabby cat foo foo eating a plastic bag
This is Foo Foo (Drama Queen) eating plastic. He does it because he’s hungry.

It actually baffles most veterinarians.  

What “they” came up with was a term, Pica, to describe the possible medical reasons or behavioral issues that cause it.

If any of these habits are becoming excessive with your cat, please and always consult your vet for a proper diagnosis, treatments, and ways to combat Pica.

Best toys for cats with pica:

What Is Pica In Cats?

Pica is an obsessive-compulsive disorder/behavioral issue with your cat that gives them the impulse to chew and eat non-food items.

The common targets for cats with Pica are:

  • Plastic
  • Plants
  • Fabric
  • Cotton
  • Paper
  • Electrical Cords
  • Shoelaces
  • Yarn
  • Cardboard

Of course, the dangers associated with your cat ingesting these things are:

  • Choking
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Intestinal obstruction

Some of the symptoms your cat may exhibit are from Pica:

  • General listlessness
  • Constipation 
  • Diarrhea 
  • Vomiting 
  • Decreased appetite

Please note:  Pica is a long-term habit, not a one-time thing.  So if your cat or kitten is playing or experimenting with something, it doesn’t mean they have it.  It also seems to be most common in Siamese cats, possibly due to their sensitive nature.

There was actually a study in August 2016 to characterize Pica behavior in cats.

The study took 91 cat owners who had cats that ingested non-food items and a controlled group of 35 that didn’t eat non-food items. They surveyed with questions on whether their cats were vomiting or having diarrhea.

The researchers also asked questions on basic cat demographics like:

  • Age
  • Breed
  • Sex
  • Medical history

They asked questions about their cat’s environment:

  • Types of enrichment available
  • Other people and animals in the house
  • Access to the outdoors

All 91 cats in the Pica group did ingest non-foods.  79 also chewed but not swallowed other items regularly.

21 of 35 within the controlled group also were chewing on things that weren’t food items. (that’s 60%)

3 variables were common with the Pica group:

  1. Access to outdoors
  2. They were free fed (“ad libitum”) only true for 30% of Pica group
  3. More vomiting

You would think this would affect more of indoor cats but that study showed that the pica group was more likely to have access to the outdoors.

For the vomiting, is it caused by the chewing or the relief from nausea?  

This study brings up more questions, of course, leading to the behavior of GI diseases in Pica cats.  

This also suggests that Pica isn’t always stress related caused by indoor living.

It’s super fascinating to me why cats love to chew and eat things that aren’t food related.  

There isn’t a definite reason why these things are so attractive to cats. We do know that cats love to chew and with this study showed 60% in a controlled group.

Below is a video of Kona’s ER visit from eating plastic and her recovery: This is dangerous.

 

How can you tell if your cat has Pica?  

Well with my Tanta and Foo Foo, it was obvious because in the morning we’d see pieces of “plastic vomit” or yarn all over the house.  They would open the trash can too to find anything plastic.

We had to resort to hanging the trash on the wall and emptying it a couple times a day.

Tanta was a string and yarn eater too.  

The last time we had string or yarn in the house was the day when we had to pull about 3 feet of yarn out of her!  

She went missing for supper and we found her under our bed flicking her face around like she was trying to swallow something.  

I happen to see a small black piece of yarn in her mouth.

I grabbed it and began to pull it out.

As I was pulling it out, she kept gagging and flailing… it was awful to see and know that she could’ve died under there because of yarn.  

Removed it from the house.

All string and yarn.

The string toys were always put away after play too. Never leave your cats unattended, especially as kittens, with string type toys. They could wrap their necks around it and suffocate.

It may not always be clear that Pica is the culprit but in time if the behavior persists, then it’s time to take action.

Below is a video showing the playful side of a cat chewing plastic:

 

What Causes Pica In Cats? Unusual Cravings.

No one knows the exact cause of Pica.  

This issue can be caused by many things.  

Most vets have linked it’s a behavioral disorder to many possible causes.  Some “experts” think that Pica is developed in cats that were weaned too early from their mommas.  

This is where the wool-sucking from kittens might happen. This behavior will mimic nursing, whether on your hair, blankets or their soft beds.

There could be some medical-type causes as a result of Pica like:

  • Diabetes – cats with diabetes is roughly around 0.5% – 2%. But most cats go undiagnosed and diet plays a huge part. I would recommend staying with a well balanced raw or cooked food for your cats.
  • Brain tumors – Please see a vet if you think your cat has this. 
    If they are having seizures, aggressive head pressing, sensitive to being touched in the neck, bumping into objects, vision issues, or uncoordinated, they might have a tumor of the brain.  
    Again, Pica isn’t always related to brain tumors, but it’s good to know if you notice any changes in your cat’s habits.
  • Anemia – It’s basically when your cat’s tissues don’t get enough oxygen from lack of red blood cell circulation.   
    For Pica, your cat might start eating litter. Doesn’t mean your cat is Anemic but it could be a sign.
  • Feline Leukemia Virus and FIV
  • Dental issues and diseases
  • Hyperthyroidism in cats

Possible causes that most vets have stated are stress related situations like:

  • Not getting enough attention: your cats may not be getting enough play time with you.  Especially if you have other animals, long work days, or other small kids.  These all require your time.  You cat may be exhibiting this behavior for your attention.
  • Misdirected behavior: If your cat wants to jump on the counter, and you won’t let him then this might result in Pica.
  • Cats in the yard: Seeing other cats may excite, anger or make your cat tear or chew things.  In time, this can result in a learned behavior/habit that they might do.
  • Separation anxiety: Leaving for work all day may lean your cat towards showing forms of Pica.
  • Boredom – Cats may show Pica as a way to entertain themselves or relieve boredom.  They need to be stimulated.
  • Loud noises – Your cat may need a stress reliever if you decide to play loud music or if there’s loud construction noise outside.  My cats are skittish if planes fly overhead or from thunderstorms.
  • Move recently?  We just did a military move from Massachusetts to Missouri and only 2 of my 4 cats demonstrated Pica.  They both started chewing plastic and eating the plastic blinds/cords.
  • New people – Pica can show itself if you bring someone new, like a baby, in the home.  Or even other animals.
  • Vitamin deficiency
  • Sucking on wool in kittens – due to early weaning
  • Dietary deficiency – Anemic cats will eat litter or if your cats eat too much grass. Could mean something is lacking from your cat’s diet.  Lack of fiber, vitamins or minerals.
  • Medical problems
  • Genetic predisposition – Seen more in Siamese and Birman cats
  • Compulsive disorders

Treatment For Pica: Ways To Prevent And  Help Your Cat

If your cat is showing the signs from above in an excessive manner, then please go see a vet to diagnose a possible health issue, so you can rule it out.  

tanta cat chewing on pillow sheet

Yet, the treatment for pica in cats depends on what your vet says… if your cat is healthy then its time to experiment with their environment.

Here are ways to help your cats, Pica:

  • Remove all the items they are chewing or eating –  I do this nightly for my cats. I actually just invested in some cat shelving (https://catveteran.com/cat-shelving) to help with enriching their environment.
  • Make items they love to chew/eat unappealing –  You could spray foul or strong smelling sprays to things like cords so your cats will stay away.  You can use citrus air fresheners or Green Gobbler Pure Orange Oil.
  • Get rid of dangerous and toxic plants – See ASPCA list here
  • Talk to an animal behaviorist –  If your cat doesn’t have a medical issue then seek out a certified applied animal behaviorist (CAAB)
  • Use Feliway Calming Sprays and oils –  This will mimic the natural feline calming pheromone. You can use the spray or diffusers. It may relieve your cat’s stress and decrease their pica.
  • Use motion-detecting sprayers or sprinklers outside –  Cats will steer clear if they are suddenly sprayed with water!
  • Hide cords using Cord Protector – CritterCord these you need to use for your cord biters. They cover your cord with a scented aroma that your cats don’t like.
  • Place a motion detecting spray – Ssscat Cat I use this at the base of my stairs to keep my cats from coming up. This releases a quick burst of spray (harmless and annoying) to keep your cats away from anything you don’t want to be chewed up.
  • Divert their actions – Give your cat safe chew toys that resemble what they are tearing up. Hide catnip animals or treats in places they normally attack.  Use puzzle toys. Basically, redirect your cat’s from chewy/eating to a more positive activity, like the toys. Don’t get upset or yell at your cat, simply take away the item they are trying to eat up
  • Redirect with things:  Toys – The Go-Cat Da bird toy (mimics prey) –  Cats are predators and you’re soothing their natural instinct to hunt things like birds. This can relieve their stress from Pica.
  • Grow catnip or cat grass – Keep watch here because if they eat too much, you might have diarrhea accidents all over.
  • Play with your cat – At least once a day for 20 minutes (makes for a happy cat). For the bored or lonely cat schedule play time.  Cats these days, with working parents, are so attention-starved. They need more mental and physical stimulation. Take your cat outdoors, build cat trees, perches or shelving.
  • Use motion-detecting sound machines (ultrasonic) –  Cats will normally avoid areas with these types of sounds.  We humans can’t hear them.
  • Commercial Medications – If your cat has obsessive Pica, then maybe an anti-anxiety med would be helpful. You can also use those while sending your cat to a behavioral specialist. Obviously, only give your cat vet prescribed medications.

Just please don’t give up on your cats, there’s no quick solid solution to this problem.  

This behavior will take time to work through and won’t be fixed overnight. Patience and love are key here.  

It will take many months to years with experiments to get your cat to a point where they don’t eat or chewy things anymore. (well any more than normal)

Just knowing a bit more about this strange habit of cats, let me always question how we live and feed our cats.  

It’s not normal for cats to be domesticated so we need to expect these odd behaviors to be in conflict with their natural instincts.

Has your cat ever eaten something unusual? How did you correct your cat’s behavior? Let us know in the comments below!

Related Questions:

Is Pica in cats deadly?  Pica isn’t necessarily a fatal issue.  Unless your cat ingests something toxic or causes a blockage within their body.  It can be dangerous if not addressed by a vet.

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