What Is Pica in Cats?
Pica is defined as the consistent chewing, sucking, or consumption of inappropriate and inedible materials, most commonly seen with cardboard, fabric, paper, plants, plastic, rubber, soil, and wood. Pica is not very common, but because the material ingested is inedible, it will cause stomach upset and can also become lodged in the gastrointestinal tract causing multiple conditions, including being life-threatening if left untreated. Surgery is often required.
The science of this disorder is not well understood, but the behavior eventually becomes obsessive due to increased reward sensations from the behavior itself, which promotes more of the behavior. Pica isn’t always the sign of an underlying health issue, but the results can be devastating—including health risks to the cat, damage to the pet parent’s belongings, and erosion of the human-animal bond.
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Symptoms of Pica in Cats
The hallmark symptom noted with pica is the actual behavior itself—chewing, sucking, or ingesting non-edible materials. Cats can also exhibit other symptoms associated with pica or its results, such as:
Lack of appetite or thirst
Constipation, straining to defecate
Causes of Pica in Cats
Pica can be challenging to pinpoint to a single cause, although several have been implicated, such as:
Behavioral conditions that arise from anxiety, stress, boredom, or compulsion: The behavior may have started innocently, but has become obsessive over time.
Early weaning or lack of socialization: Pica is seen more often in younger cats.
Genetics: Some breeds, such as Siamese and Burmese, have higher incidences of pica than others, although any cat can be affected.
Parasites and other infections, such as feline infectious peritonitis (FIP)
Poor diet or malnutrition
Pyruvate kinase deficiency: Lack of an enzyme needed for red blood cells results in anemia.
How Veterinarians Diagnose Pica in Cats
If your cat is displaying signs of pica, seek veterinary attention to help rule out underlying medical conditions. Screening tests such as baseline bloodwork, urine testing, and stool examinations will most likely be performed, in addition to a detailed history and physical exam. There is no diagnostic test specifically for pica, so often a combination of the above and other tests may be needed to arrive at a diagnosis.
Treatment of Pica in Cats
Treatment of pica in cats is often complex and multi-layered, and consultation with a veterinarian to determine the best course of treatment for your cat is recommended. The following are some protocols that can help:
If pica stems from a nutritional deficiency, then consult with your veterinarian and consider altering your cat’s diet to a high-quality, commercially fed cat food or prescription-based food such as Royal Canin®/MD Calm or Hill’s c/d MultiCare. These diets, which contain nutrients like hydrolyzed milk protein and L-tryptophan, also help decrease stress in cats.
Certain medications are often prescribed to aid in eliminating or treating compulsive or anxiety-related behaviors. Partner with your veterinarian to find the correct drug, dose, and frequency, then adhere to all follow-up appointments, as these drugs often require monitoring bloodwork.
Other medications such as dewormers and supplements (EFAs, omega-3, EPA, and DHA) may be recommended to aid brain health and improve cognition, and also probiotics and prebiotics to improve gut health.
Enrichment and Exercise
To help curb pica that stems from boredom and anxiety, you can provide some new activities that help to engage or calm your cat, such as:
Teaching your cat how to walk on a leash, or playing with them more often
Installing a “catio,” or more perches or cat trees in your home
Using feeder puzzles or toys
You may also want to consider more chew toys as suitable alternatives.
Reduction of Stress
Stress can be a major factor in inappropriate behavior in cats. Sometimes just moving the furniture around can put them in a bewildered mood! By making sure your cat has easy access to plenty of litter boxes, and their food and water bowls, and ensuring positive cat-to-cat interactions within the home, you help keep your cat’s stress levels down. Calming products such as Feliway, a synthetic pheromone spray, collar, or diffuser, may also be helpful in decreasing stress in the home.
Pica-proofing your home and preventing access to your cat’s preferred items can certainly curb this behavior. While easier said than done, using baby gates, shutting doors, closing trash cans and cupboards, and even using a harness and leash when supervised can prevent a trip to the emergency room.
"No-chew sprays” can be used as a deterrent for preferred objects. Additionally, canned air or loud noises such as yelling “No!” or shaking a can of rocks when caught in the act can be effective at deterring the behavior.
Natural Remedies for Pica in Cats
Unfortunately, there is not a lot of research to show whether natural remedies can aid in eliminating pica behavior. As for other home remedies, be careful with over-the-counter products, as cats are extremely sensitive to many, and toxicities can develop even with the smallest of doses, including essential oils. Always discuss with your veterinarian the proposed benefits and risks of any home remedies before you try them with your cat.
Recovery and Management of Pica in Cats
Pica can be a difficult and challenging condition to treat, let alone manage, and being patient and working closely with your veterinarian while being open to trying different recommendations is paramount to success. Fortunately, for most cats this condition can be managed effectively, while most kittens simply grow out of the behavior.
If you catch your cat in the act, redirecting the behavior toward something else or offering a tasty treat may be enough to curb the behavior in the moment. Limiting or blocking your cat’s access to preferred items can also be a simple way to keep your cat safe. And should you notice your cat ingesting anything inappropriate, an immediate trip to the veterinarian for treatment may prevent a costly surgery. Be vigilant for signs of a gastrointestinal obstruction, which can include lethargy, decreased appetite or thirst, failure to pass stool or straining while defecating, and vomiting.
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