The Mind of Your Cat: 09/02

Question: I have a wonderful 3-year-old spayed female Siamese. She has been a strictly indoor cat since I adopted her at 4 months of age. Although she is a healthy cat, she eats fabric. She doesnt just chew and tear the fabric; she actually swallows and passes chunks of every cloth she can find. I almost lost her when she was about age 1 because she ate my dish sponge. I currently lock anything that might tempt her in closets, but even so she finds fabric to eat. I am concerned about the possible gastrointestinal effects of this habit. Several veterinarians have suggested that there is no cure for this condition. Do you have any insight into the behavior of my bizarre, but still beloved, cat?

Answer: The seemingly bizarre behavior of eating fabric is not actually that uncommon, at least not among Siamese cats. Perhaps you have known Siamese cats that exhibited wool sucking or wool chewing. It may be that the behaviors of wool sucking, wool chewing, fabric chewing, and fabric ingesting represent varying intensities of a single phenomenon.

The fact that a particular breed of cat appears pre-disposed to exhibit a behavior indicates that there is a considerable genetic component to the behavior. But it is not clear what factors in particular contribute to the expression of fabric ingesting. Nor is it clear why some cats simply suck on fabric, while others actually gnaw or ingest the foreign materials.

Although cats that chew on fabric most often choose wool, other materials may be selected. Perhaps these alternative preferences simply develop when wool is not readily available. Or some cats, such as your own, may not be very particular at all about what items they ingest.

The ingestion of non-food items has been termed pica. When the condition occurs in a young, well-nourished animal, particularly a Siamese cat, there is a strong suspicion that it is a manifestation of a behavioral problem rather than a medical condition. However, there are medical problems that affect an animals ingestive behavior. Therefore, before assigning a behavioral diagnosis, a thorough physical examination and baseline laboratory tests should always be performed to screen for underlying medical conditions such as intestinal parasites and digestive disorders.

Causes of the conduct
There are many theories regarding the nature of wool-sucking and fabric-ingesting behaviors. It has been proposed that wool sucking may be related to early weaning. Most housecats are weaned several months earlier than are free-living cats. Siamese cats in particular might be better suited to remaining with their queens until a later age. Unfortunately, that is not always practical as most families want to adopt small kittens rather than adults, and a later adoption age might also have a negative impact on the ability of a cat to bond with her human family.

Another theory regarding fabric-eating behavior is that it may be a consequence of a low-fiber diet or the ingestion of processed foods. This theory is based on the consideration that an outdoor cat would naturally ingest small animals and plant material that offer fiber as well as providing an opportunity for the cat to chew aggressively. Indeed, some cats appear to improve when given increased dietary fiber or when offered safe chewable items such as dog bones or vegetables.

Cats that live in a strictly indoor environment may be more inclined to ingest fabric. The behavior may begin because of normal exploratory behavior in a limited environment. For such cats, offering a variety of interesting toys may be helpful, rotated to help them maintain their novelty.

Finally, cats may find sucking, chewing, and/or ingesting wool and other materials to be pacifying. Thus, a cat that experiences anxiety may reach for fabric. When anxiety drives a repetitive behavior such as ingesting inappropriate items, the behavior may be described as obsessive-compulsive in nature. In a sense, the cat appears compelled to reach for the fabric and to engage in the behavior of chewing or sucking. Such cats are often rather difficult to interrupt: they seem quite committed to the behavior at hand.

Curbing the behavior
Because of the severity of your cats condition, a private consultation with a veterinary behaviorist would be advisable. A detailed behavioral history would be required to determine which environmental and behavioral modification steps would be most appropriate. Your cat might benefit from environmental enrichment with interactive toys or from a dietary change.

If the intensity of anxiety is low, then you may be able to deter your cat from reaching for inappropriate and dangerous items by painting them with a safe yet aversive flavor. Products that are safe for use in cats are commercially available. If your cat is not deterred by a flavor, then you may try a remote activated device that would emit a sound or burst of water to startle your cat should she reach to chew an inappropriate item.

A behaviorist would also be able to assess whether anxiety appears to be the basis for this behavior. If so, appropriate medication could be prescribed to reduce the intensity of the anxiety. Obsessive-compulsive behavior is considered an anxiety-based condition and often responds well to psychotropic medication.

Your veterinarians advice was right on target. Often, fabric-ingesting cats cannot be completely cured. That is, many aspects of the treatment program may become lifelong additions to your routine. However, there is every reason to expect that the condition can be well controlled so that your cat may not need to be subjected to illness related to the ingestion of foreign matter.