What is Pica, and Why Does It Make Cats Eat Plastic?

Written by Shaunice Lewis
Published: October 19, 2022
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Pica is a condition that causes an individual to eat things that are not food. Cats can suffer from this condition just like some humans do. Unfortunately, this condition can be quite common in cats and could be potentially harmful.

If you’ve found your cat munching on things that are not food, you may be wondering why this is and if there is anything you can do to stop it. Read on to learn more about pica and why it makes cats eat things like plastic.

What is Pica?

In humans, pica is considered to be a mental health condition that results in an individual desiring to eat non-food items. The condition is most commonly found in children, especially when accompanied by other health conditions. Most of the time the condition is harmless, but it can lead to some dangerous things being ingested. A person may eat things that are not food and have no nutritional value. Some common things that people with pica eat are rocks, clay, dirt, crayons, ice, hair, or even paint chips. Fortunately, pica is a treatable condition with therapy and is often corrected by making certain lifestyle changes.

In cats, you may find that they gravitate toward eating things like plastic bags, wool, houseplants, rubber bands, or paper. This condition is actually very common in cats, so don’t be too surprised if you find your cat munching on a non-food item. Sometimes cats will do seemingly strange things like “nurse” on wool. This behavior can be attributed to being weaned from their mother cat too early. Sometimes when a kitten is weaned too early from its mother, it may “nurse” on fabrics like wool, the arm of its owner, your hair, or even your earlobes.

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The younger that cat was when it was weaned too early from its mother, the stronger its desire to nurse may be, and you may find it nursing on random things, which can appear to be symptoms of pica, but it is actually not the same. In the action of suckling on wool or other items, the cat is not attempting to eat them, but instead attempting to “nurse” from its mother. While some cats might only suckle on soft items like wool or a blanket, other cats may attempt to eat fabrics. An attempt to eat fabrics or other non-food items is more of a sign of pica than being weened too early.

You might find your cat eating things like paper, plastic bags, and shoelaces, or even chewing up your electrical cords, which can be very dangerous.

Why Do Cats Eat Plastic and Other Non-Food Items?

There is no direct answer for the cause of pica in cats. It is strange behavior that can have many reasons for occurring, so we’ll take a look at some of the most common reasons why your cat may be eating plastic and other non-food items. Let’s have a look at them down below.

Medical Conditions

Sometimes cats may display symptoms of pica due to other health conditions that they may be suffering from. If a cat has diabetes or, in more serious situations, a brain tumor, it may develop pica as a result and attempt to eat non-food items. Pica can also be associated with things like feline immunodeficiency virus and feline leukemia.

If you notice that your cat has begun eating non-food items, you should make an appointment to see the vet in order to rule out any underlying health issues that your cat may be suffering from unknowingly. If this is the case, the veterinarian can get your cat on a treatment for the underlying health issue which may in turn help alleviate the symptoms of pica and reduce the behavior.

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Dietary Deficiency

Sometimes a lack of nutrients or a deficiency in your cat’s diet can lead to the development of pica as the cat tries to eat random things to obtain the nutrients it may be missing. For example, some cats will eat some of their cat litter if they are suffering from anemia. If you’ve caught your cat munching on litter from its litter box, this may be the cause. A veterinarian will be able to take blood samples and let you know if your cat is anemic. If so, you may need to change your cat’s diet in order to supplement its missing nutrients and reverse the anemia.

If you have an outdoor cat, you may notice that your cat likes munching on grass, leaves, or other plant matter. This is normal behavior, but if your cat is eating a lot of it, it could be a sign of a deficiency in its diet. Again, you should make an appointment for your cat to see the vet in order to determine what the deficiency is so that it can be treated and reversed.

Cat eating catnip

Your cat may eat non-food items in an attempt to get the nutrients it may be deficient in.

©iStock.com/BiancaGrueneberg

Genetically Predisposed

Some cat breeds are actually more likely to develop pica than others. These breeds are genetically predisposed to the condition. As we mentioned earlier, the act of wool suckling can sometimes lead to the development of pica condition and is more commonly seen in Birman and Siamese cats.

Lack of Stimulation

In some cases, cats may develop pica due to environmental factors like a lack of stimulation or attention. If your cat is not getting enough mental stimulation, it may seek out ways to relieve its boredom. This could look like munching on plastic bags, electrical cords, or other things around the house. Every cat needs different amounts of mental stimulation to keep them happy, so be sure that you’re aware of your cat’s needs. Having fun toys for your cat to play with, especially when you’re away, may help reduce or even eliminate its desire to get into other things for entertainment.

Related to this, cats may also munch on non-food items as a way of dealing with anxiety or depression. Yes, cats may suffer from these things just like humans can, and sometimes it can be caused by a lack of stimulation or attention. Try incorporating more fun things for your cat to do like providing plenty of cat toys, or making sure that it has a climbing tree to perch on. You can also make sure you’re giving your cat plenty of love and attention to help ease its anxiety or depression. If you feel like this is the cause of your cat’s behavior, you should schedule an appointment with your vet to make sure that there is no underlying health issue, as sometimes anxiety and depression can be symptoms of an undiagnosed health condition.

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How to Treat Pica in Cats

Once all underlying health issues have been ruled out, what’s left is treating the behavior that comes along with pica. The good news is that pica in cats is treatable and there are things that you can do to stop the behavior. One thing you can do to treat pica is to make sure that your cat is getting all the vitamins and nutrients it needs through its normal diet. This means making sure that your cat has healthy cat food as its base. It may also look like adding additional healthy cat-safe foods like veggies or fruits as snacks or treats, or even in combination with its regular meals.

Another thing you can do to treat pica is to make sure that your can is getting enough mental stimulation as well as plenty of exercise. This can be accomplished by providing plenty of toys for your cat as well as at least 30 minutes of active playtime every day. Keeping your cats busy and giving them plenty of love and attention goes a long way in helping reduce the instances of pica-related behaviors.

Should I Take My Cat to the Vet?

If your cat has eaten something that isn’t food and you notice signs of discomfort like vomiting, hiding, or other signs of pain, you should take your cat to an emergency animal hospital. Sometimes cats may ingest something that could have a hard time being processed through their digestive system or in some cases could be toxic to them. Having them seen quickly usually results in the best outcome, so if you are concerned, do not hesitate to get them seen by a professional.

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The photo featured at the top of this post is © George Popa/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Freelance writer specializing in natural health and wellness.

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Sources
  1. Cleveland Clinic, Available here: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/22944-pica
  2. Fetch by Web MD, Available here: https://pets.webmd.com/cats/features/unusual-cat-cravings#1