My Ragdoll Snacks on Paper

Pica is the proper term for cats who eat non-nutritional items, and it can be a worrisome habit

Karepa |Adobe PhotoStock

Q. My 10-year-old Ragdoll loves paper, especially newspaper and cheap paperbacks. She’s been eating paper since I brought her home at 4 months of age from the breeder.

I try to limit her eating, but she purrs when she sees paper and while eating it. I am concerned about the chemicals she is ingesting with paper and print.

Can you please advise if you know of this type of behavior and its consequences for kitty’s health?

A. Hmmm . . . gives new meaning to the term “food for thought”! Just kidding . . . I know that this behavior can be quite disconcerting to owners.

Thank you for getting in touch about your baby’s odd behavior, that may not be as odd as you might think. Pica is the term used for the ingestion of non-nutritive items, and it has been recognized as a feline phenomenon in veterinary literature for at least 50 years. While the definitive cause for this behavior is a subject of debate, a few points about proposed causes and management warrant review.

Cats with pica may eat a wide variety of items, including plastic, wood, rubber, wool, paper, and items of clothing; and while a number of potential causes, including boredom, premature separation from the queen, anxiety, nutritional deficiencies, and obsessive-compulsive disorder have been proposed, no definitive cause has been identified.

It’s important to make sure that there is not a medical cause for any cat that demonstrates this behavior, so taking your kitty to the veterinarian for an examination is a good idea. Of course, if a medical issue is identified, the first step is to appropriately treat that condition. In many, if not most cases, though, no medical cause of pica is identified in cats.

It is of interest to note that some studies suggest that pica is more common in cats housed solely indoors, raising the possibility of boredom, lack of social interaction, and redirection of hunting behavior playing a role. Another study found that cats that demonstrated pica were less commonly fed ad libitum (free choice) than cats that did not.

Management of pica for which a medical cause is not identified generally involves taking measures to remove from the environment non-food items that cats may show a preference for ingesting, feeding a well-balanced and complete diet, offering acceptable alternatives for chewing/swallowing, reducing stress by establishing a routine for feeding, sleeping, grooming, and other activities, and minimizing boredom by dedicating specific times to interacte play with appropriate cat-safe toys.

The major risks of pica in cats are the possibility of a kitty ingesting something that can obstruct the gastrointestinal tract and/or that is toxic. For this reason, any cat demonstrating pica that shows signs of vomiting, diarrhea, lack of appetite, lethargy, or avoidance of contact with their owner/other pets should be evaluated by a veterinarian promptly. While I am not aware of any specific risks to cats eating paper with print on it with respect to toxicity, it is certainly possible for paper to obstruct the GI tract, so I think working toward resolving this behavior as best you can is a good idea. In some cases, consultation with a veterinary behaviorist may be beneficial.

I hope that this is helpful, and please drop me a line to let me know how things are going when you have the chance. Many cats that show this behavior live happy and healthy lives, so do not be dismayed. An ounce of prevention can be worth a pound of cure, though, so being as proactive as possible certainly can’t hurt the situation!

All my best, Elizabeth