An opinionated feline in Edmonton, Canada who lived with a retired cat behaviourist, Greyce provided behavioral advice to cats in need until her death in July 2014. Because her entries are useful even today, the blog remains posted.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Cat Eats Elastic & Fabric: Pica

Dear Greyce,

I am an adorable beige kitten who was rescued from a garbage dump. I am about 8 months old, male and  neutered. I live with Rosie, a 4 year old female and two purrsons, Herself and Himself, in a bungalow. Like all kittens, I have two speeds: "full on" during which I'm a bundle of energy  and "full off" meaning that I am asleep.

I am very outgoing and love people. I always comes to visitors for a pat of my furs. I enjoy being held, especially on Herself's knee every morning before she goes to work. Himself is retired and so spends lots of time with me during the day.

A few weeks ago I had to have an operation. Some elastic hair ties and pieces of fabric were removed from my tummy. Soon after I had my Elizabethan collar removed (it prevented me from biting my stitches), I went after the elastic pull tab on a laptop case. Themselves are frantic with worry.

Now I must admit that I haven't gnawed on all fabric, for I sleep with Themselves and they have sheets and everything. I also like to nap on an acrylic afghan on the couch and I'm not eating it. But I sure went after the toes of a cotton sock.

While I love to play, Themselves have become extremely careful about what I play with because they are afraid I will eat it. I enjoy a tin foil ball and various mice. My interactive play is limited to the laser pointer. I also enjoy looking out the window, especially since we live by an elementary school where there are periods of action with the kids coming and going.

My eating habit is apparently causing household distress, along with another habit I have. I come over to be petted and really enjoy it. I love to have my head and neck scratched. And then all of a sudden, I  grab Themselves' hand(s) and arms with my teeth and start to claw. Admittedly Greyce I am getting better. Now they pull me off and hold their hands and arms close to their bodies and say, "No" in an attempt to have me understand that fingers and arms are off limits for scratching and biting. And I usually stop then. I used to attack their ankles suddenly too; but that is becoming a thing of the past.

And now for Rosie. She came into the household when she was 2 years old and is a refined, spayed tabby. She is on the shy side. For example when we have visitors she comes to see them and then disappears. She is curious about new things and enjoys being petted when she wants to be - which isn't often. She seems to know when people are upset and comes over and gives a kiss or a nudge.

We met quickly. I came to my new home and that was it!

Rosie and I get along. We have food bowls side-by-side and dip into each other's at whim; we are free-fed dry food. About twice a day (sometimes more), I pounce on her and there is a big, brief skuffle and then we're done. We have two window perches and while I enjoy window viewing or napping on the afghan on the sofa, she favours the chair which is pushed under the dining room table. So all in all, I think we get along well.

Now back to my problems, Greyce. What do you advise?

Energetically yours,

Dear Rufus,

First and foremost, remember that you are a kitten. An 8-month-old kitten is roughly equivalent to a 15-year-old human. Teens of that age tend to have only two speeds. One moment they are into everything. And the next moment, they are fast asleep and not wanting to wake to go to school. While this aspect of your behaviour is purrfectly normal for your age and stage of growth, it must be alarming to Themselves - especially when compared to Rosie's behaviour when she was adopted - for a 2 year old cat (roughly 24 years in human terms) was probably much more subdued. And now that she is 4 (roughly 35 human years in equivalence) she is very much a lady. So it sounds as if your purrsons will have to channel your energy because you have LOTS of it.

All about Pica

Let's get to you major problem first: pica. Yes, eating unusual (that is, non-edible) things is called pica.  The good news is that it has a name. The not-so-hot news is that not a lot is known about what causes it or how to deal with it. But there are some strategies that seem to work, at least in many cases; so read on.

Here are some facts:

Pica can manifest in different ways: some cats only 'do' elastic, others 'do' plastic bags, some prefurr wool, some only eat plastic computer wire, and the list goes on and on.There is some thought that in some of these cases there is a particular chemical in the material that attracts a portion of cats.

Cats with pica tend to be those who have been weaned early. Guess not getting enough sucking action leads one to continue the behaviour in the absence of mother's milk.

Pica is most likely to show up between the ages of 2 and 8 months. 

Many cats with pica tend to be emotionally dependent on their purrsons. So they need ways of becoming more independent.

One study showed that 15% of cats with pica stopped when they were neutered. Guess that counts you out.

Some cats indulge everyday and some, every so often. 

Oriental breeds, most especially Siamese and Burmese, have a tendency toward pica. And some behaviourists believe it is part of OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). While there is some genetic predisposition, it usually takes stress to trigger pica. Stressors for cats include  moving to a new home, meeting a new cat, lack of stimulation, and the like.

There is some evidence that pica wanes in cats once they are around 2 years of age - something to look forward to. The assumption is that by that time, said cat has learned to cope with the stressors that may have triggered off pica in the first place. And yet there are many cats who continue this habit for the rest of their nine lives. Take heart: we will work on trying to get you to grow out of this habit now, which means we have to increase your repertoire for coping with stress.

Recently-worn or used material (usual with your purrsons' scent on it) is often considered the most attractive. 

Negative discipline will NOT get your attention when you are eating fabric (or other things), as many cats with pica seem to go into a trance when they are 'in the act'. All negative discipline will do, is get you to hide your behaviour - so not a good idea!

Dealing with Pica

There are several strategies when dealing with this problem.

Where possible, make the things you want to eat inaccessible to you. Out of sight. Out of mind.

Make the kinds of things you like to eat, unsavoury. This usually consists of spraying them (or applying in some other way) substances like eucalyptus oil, menthol or a preparation call Bitter Apple on the item. When you bite it, the smell and bitter taste is usually enough to drive you away.

Increase your resilience so that you can better cope with stress. We will work on ways to increase the stimulation in your life and redirect your attention to other ways of dealing with life.

Dietary changes. While there is no evidence that pica is the result of a nutritional deficiency, some purrsons have found that changing their cat's diets a bit, helps immensely. The dietary changes include switching to a food higher in fibre, adding a fibre supplement (usually to wet food) and even giving you tough meat or meat-covered bones (since pica, particularly the tearing off of fabric, can be seen as an expression of frustrated prey-catching behaviour since you no longer hunt outdoors in order to eat). Before you try to implement ANY of the food-related possibilities, you MUST consult with your veterinarian.

My Suggestions for You

1. Elastics. What is it about elastic that gives us joy? I can think of two things: being irrestibly attracted to the smell and the attraction of shape. You see, we cats are wired to be attracted to long, thin shapes (think thread, dental floss, elastic, string and twine, small rope). We have been known to play with them, chew on them, and swallow them. And as you probably know by now, we cannot stop the act of swallowing (like spitting things up) because our bodies are not equipped to do so.

So the first order of the day is to put them out of harm's way. Those elastic hair bands belong in a jar (so you cannot smell them and cannot open them - unless you are the first cat in the world to have opposable thumbs). Ditto any elastics that lie about.

In fact, I strongly recommend that themselves do a thorough kitten-proofing of your home and put any potentially harmful materials in a safe place (in a jar, in a closet with the door closed, in a drawer with a baby-proof lock if you are the kind who likes to open drawers). This would also mean keeping shoes with laces out of your reach - at least for now.

It is also the reason I recommend that garbage bins in bathrooms and kitchens have strong fitting lids (like those stainless types with the attached lid you open with a foot lever). Dental floss, bones and the like may be tempting but are very expensive to remedy when they lodge in your gut.

2. Those items that cannot be put away deserve another treatment: Bitter Apple. This is a repellent that comes in a spray or gel and tastes very bitter (a taste we hate) when we try to munch on it and so you stop. This is often available in pet supply stores or through your veterinarian. And you could also try the other oils I mentioned (but they may very well stain things).

3. Smell: Never underestimate the attraction of smell, especially scents belonging to our beloved people. It is the reason why some anxious cats pee over their purrson's discarded clothing (en route to the laundry). No, you are not peeing; you are munching. Even I know that difference.

I wonder if the sock you 'did in' was cleaned or used. My bet is that it was used and you either fished it off the floor or laundry basket and had a good chew. The solution is simple: have themselves get a good laundry hamper with a strong-fitted lid you cannot pry open. And make sure they don't sort laundry on the floor or leave it is piles to be washed. Either the door to the laundry needs to be closed so you cannot get at it, or the dirty laundry has to be locked away.

4. I sense also that a big part of your problem is that you are bored. And bored cats (and kids) get into mischief. Indeed, lack of stimulation (particularly to an outdoor cat used to fending for himself) is a major contributor to stress. My suggestions about playing should help. (I've put them a bit later.)

5. If all else fails, have Themselves consult with your vet about the possibility of amending your daily diet: 1) consider the possibility of a higher fibre food, 2) consider the possibility of supplementing your dry food with small daily (twice daily) portions of wet and adding a fibre supplement to it; for example, I have 1/2 tsp of ground psyllium (from the health food store) added to my wet food and mixed with extra water - since psyllium absorbs water and we don't want me to dry out; 3) consider using canned pumpkin (NOT pumpkin pie filling but just pumpkin by itself in a can); any portion not used in a week can be put in separate containers and frozen for use later.

Any additives should be graded in slowly (for example, starting at 1/4 of the recommended dose and waiting several days before upping it to 1/2 and waiting again before 3/4 and waiting again before being a full dose). This gives the body the chance to adjust and forestalls digestive upsets or loose stools that can result from going too fast, too soon. And you may find you do better on less than a full dose, as some cats do.

If you end up resorting to meat on the bone you MUST consult your vet about it in advance because you could do yourself harm if his/her instructions are not carefully followed.

6. Under NO circumstances should be you disciplined for this behaviour, because studies have shown that the only thing that does for the cat is to have him or her sneak off and indulge in this vice, in private. So not a good idea! Instead, I recommend the following if they should catch you in the act: distract you with a toy or the chance to play a game.

Biting/Scratching Hands in Play

What you are indulging in by your bite-and-scratch technique with Themselves is called predatory aggression which basically means treating a purrson's appendages like prey. It is most often found in young cats who have energy to burn and nowhere to put it. It is also exacerbated when purrsons use their hands like toys (not in your case); there are purrsons who will wear gloves with toys dangling from then or try to rub your belly when you are excited and wonder why all hell breaks loose.

Your energy level needs to be tamed or you get into trouble. In other words, you have a lot of energy to burn and you cannot do it all on your own (especially when living indoors). So you need at least two or three decent (15 - 20 minute) interactive play sessions a day. I'd love to see you have one during the day, one in early evening and one just before bed.

I have spent a great deal of time on this blog dealing with this very issue, and so I am going to refurr you to previous entries that will be of help: Cat Stalk's Humans: Tux's Trials (12/11/11) as well as Oliver's Twists (3/3/10) and an Octopus Makes it Right (3/21/10). Tux's entry contains valuable info on exactly how to play.

Suitable Toys

While the laser pointer is a good idea, it has limitations. Used incessantly it will become boring to you. And because you can never catch the dot, there will be a point at which frustrations will build. Some behaviourists have suggested that the use of a laser pointer is ill-advised because it can lead to the development of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I'm not totally convinced of that. But one thing I know for sure, you need a wider variety of interactive toys - interactive meaning those you play with, with your purrsons.

Given you penchant for fabric, no doubt themselves are reluctant to give you bags of catnip or other, small fabric toys. Never fear, Greyce has other ideas.

For Interactive Play with Purrsons try:

Wands - usually a plastic pole with feathers, tinsel or some such at the ends. I suggest feathers only for you (if they come with tinsel or bells, make sure those are snipped off).

Fishing pole-type toys - Given your interest in material, I'd suggest something such as the Nekoflies which are attached at the rod end rather than at the toy end - likely making it more difficult for you to chew off; just make sure to choose an attachment that doesn't have dangly bits you can easily bite off (because I think Themselves would be concerned).  Purrhaps one of the fur ones would be a better choice for you.

There are videos on the link which show cats at play. Frankly the videos are pretty straightforward and, to my mind, a bit boring. I suggest you consult my information on interactive play as per Tux's entry, to make the games more interesting.

Obviously such toys are put safely away when you are not being supervised.

For solo play, also consider

Pawbreaker, a small, hard ball of compressed catnip. Even if you nibble, you should be fine.

A treat ball (a plastic ball that dispenses treats or you regular dry food). Getting the treat can be made increasingly difficult as you master each level. Taking it to the next level: There are several other food treat puzzles available, usually in hard plastic with various pieces. (Petlinks and Trixie are two such brands, and many of these are available at pet supply stores).

A turbo scratcher (usually a round plastic open tunnel with a ball it it, surrounding a corrugated scratch pad; you play with the ball but can never get it out of the tunnel. Instead it goes round and round; many kittens enjoy this.) Turbo Scratcher in action shows a video of a cat using this toy. Larger turbo tracks (like a racing track) are also available.

Ping pong balls for a game of bathtub ping pong. You might want to put a bathmat in the tub for grip. The balls will roll around and up the sides, just like a bicyclist riding in a veledrome. Great fun.

Pouncing on Rosie

Sure pounding on Rosie is fun . . . for you, maybe. But what about Rosie?

I don't relish the thought of an older, shyer cat going about her business never knowing when a pounce will happen. And I'm concerned because, over time, this could very well have negative consequences for her, that is, stress reactions.

So I need you to send me more details about your pouncing: 1) if it occurs at particular times of the day, 2) where it is likely to occur (e.g. when she rounds a corner), 3) what she does in reaction to it, 4) whether or not her behaviour has changed as a result (e.g., increased wariness or avoidance of particular spaces), and 5) what discipline, if any is used.  Send me the info and I'll get to work on it.

You know, Rufus, you are a very lucky cat. You have a good home and concerned purrsons. And your introduction process is one that defies all the rules (possibly because you were a kitten and because Rosie keeps to herself).

Now get going, Rufus. You have work to do!