Pica (compulsive eating of non-food items) in Cats

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Last updated on
3 min read

Key takeaways

Pica is a behavioral symptom where cats compulsively eat non-food items. It is an uncommon symptom in cats.

  • This abnormal behavior can indicate an underlying medical issue such as infection or nutritional deficiency, or may be due to stress 
  • Signs of pica in cats include repeated ingestion of non-food items such as fabric, string, paper, plastic, litter, or rocks
  • Cats with pica may also chew on inedible objects, such as toys, clothing, furniture, or electrical cords
  • Pica can cause gastrointestinal blockages and other serious health problems and must be addressed by a veterinarian
  • Diagnostics include a physical examination, bloodwork, and diagnostic imaging
  • Treatment varies depending on the condition triggering pica behavior
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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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Possible causes

Potential triggers of pica include medical and behavioral issues.

Behavioral issues include

  • Stress/Anxiety
  • Boredom
  • Early weaning
  • Obsessive/compulsive behavior

Risk factors

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
  • Urinalysis
  • 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
  • Training
  • Environmental changes to relieve stress
  • Anti-anxiety medications
  • Endoscopy
  • Surgery

Similar symptoms

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.

Associated symptoms


Kristin Trott, Tiffany Snell - Writing for UC Davis Veterinary Medicine
No Author - Writing for International Cat Care
Hannah Hollinger - Writing for Wag!
Jacqueline Brister, DVM - Writing for Veterinary Partner
Alice Defarges , DVM, DACVIM / Shauna Blois , DVM, DVSc, DACVIM-SAIM / Edward J. Hall , MA, VetMB, PhD, DECVIM-CA / Thomas W. G. Gibson , BSc, BEd, DVM, DVSc, DACVSMR / Kelly D. Mitchell , BSc, DVM, DVSc, DACVIM - Writing for Merck Veterinary Manual
Hannah Hollinger - Writing for Wag!

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