A closer look: Pica (compulsive eating of non-food items) in Cats
Pica is an uncommon symptom in cats. Many cats occasionally chew or ingest inappropriate items such as plants, fabric, string, or elastic bands, but do not do so habitually. Chewing or tearing items without ingesting material is not indicative of pica.
Cats may occasionally eat non-food items, but compulsive and repeated ingestion of inappropriate items or particular materials indicates a more severe condition.
Pica is differentiated from normal behavior by the repeated and compulsive eating of non-food items. Pica may be a symptom of a medical issue such as nutritional deficiency or infection, or due to behavioral disorders.
Consumption of large amounts of inedible and/or indigestible material is more serious than a passing dietary indiscretion; cats may develop life-threatening secondary conditions such as intestinal blockage. Consumption of string, yarn, thread or similar material requires veterinary attention due to the risk of linear foreign body obstruction.
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Potential triggers of pica include medical and behavioral issues.
Behavioral issues include
- Early weaning
- Obsessive/compulsive behavior
Pica can cause gastrointestinal obstruction and/or perforation, which is a life-threatening emergency requiring immediate veterinary attention. Cats may favor eating items like string, floss, tinsel, or elastic bands, which are particularly dangerous due to the risk of linear foreign body obstruction. Symptoms of gastrointestinal obstruction include vomiting, diarrhea, lack of appetite, lethargy, and abdominal pain or distention.
Certain breeds of cats may be more likely to develop pica, possibly due to genetic predisposition.
Testing and diagnosis
A veterinarian diagnoses the condition triggering pica using:
- Physical examination
- Patient history
- Blood work
- Diagnostic imaging, such as X-rays or ultrasound
Treatment depends on the underlying condition, and any resulting conditions such poisoning or gastrointestinal obstruction. Possible treatments may include:
- Removing the target item(s)
- Diet change
- Nutritional supplements
- Enrichment, socialization
- Environmental changes to relieve stress
- Anti-anxiety medications
Pica may be mistaken for chewing, tearing or suckling objects without ingesting the material. Cats with pica habitually consume non-food materials in large amounts.
Coprophagia, ingestion of feces, is typically considered as a separate condition from pica. Cats with polyphagia consume large amounts of food and are always hungry, but do not typically consume non-food items.