Our 2-year-old cat Hershey keeps chewing and eating fabrics, and nothing seems to stop him. He ended up in the hospital with a bowel obstruction and needed surgery to remove it. We are at our wits’ end. Please help us.
Pica is a behavioral disorder that can affect both animals and humans and is defined as the ingestion of non-food materials. The term pica is the Latin word for magpie, a bird well known for eating anything and everything indiscriminately!
The materials eaten may be fabrics (wool and cotton), plastics, paper, stones, sand, pebbles, cat litter and many more. When cats and dogs eat plants, that can be called pica too; however, it is not usually a major issue as the motivation and the need differ from those of classic pica. It is important to prevent pica because of the potential for poisoning, bowel perforation and/or blockage, and dental problems, as teeth may become well worn or fracture. It is quite common for dogs to chew foreign objects, but a problem arises when they actually swallow them.
- Nutrition: Certain mineral deficiencies have been known to trigger pica in pets. Phosphorus, zinc and iron deficiency are usually blamed.
- Early weaning: This is considered a key factor in cats. Kittens weaned between two and four weeks of age appear to be particularly susceptible to non-nutritive suckling of littermates and/or inanimate objects. Abnormal or repetitive oral behaviors appear to be characteristic of early or sudden weaning across species.1
- Genes: Pica has been shown to be increasingly common in Oriental cat breeds, indicating familial inheritance.2 It is also thought to be due to a high level of stress in early life manifesting in susceptible individuals.
- Anxiety: Separation anxiety in dogs has often been found to trigger pica as they redirect their stress into chewing/eating foreign objects. In cats, introduction of new pets into the household causes anxiety and emotional conflict.
- Boredom: Pica in cats has been observed in the presence of owners during periods of inadequate stimulation. Dogs that are not given enough exercise, mental stimulation or interactive toys have also been known to resort to chewing rocks or wood to stimulate themselves.
- Dental needs: Teething triggers pica in puppies as chewing helps alleviate gum pain, especially if appropriate chew toys that massage the gums and cater to the chewing instinct are not provided. If the pup develops a preference for any such object, it can continue even after the teething age has passed.
SIGNS & DIAGNOSIS
Owners should contact their vets when this behavior becomes compulsive and the pets injure themselves, damage objects or furniture, or indulge in pica very often. In most cases the pet is seen actively chewing or eating foreign objects, or pieces of fabric or non-food material are visible in their stools.
Vomiting, regurgitation and/diarrhea may also occur. Dental damage or excessive wear and tear may be noted during veterinary consultations. Some dogs may injure their lips or mouth.
Radiographs to check for foreign bodies and blood tests to rule out nutritional deficiencies are some investigations your vet may need to perform to ascertain the cause of pica. Install a video camera to observe what, when and how your pet is indulging in pica if it happens when you are not at home.
Identifying the origin and the reason for pica is important to treat it correctly.
- Nutritional supplements: If blood tests provide evidence of a particular nutrient deficiency, then your vet may suggest a supplement. Soil-based probiotics are useful for pets who eat soil or pebbles. Various mineral supplements are available online. Do your research and obtain a good-quality one, preferably vet approved. Rx Minerals, Dr Marty’s, Dr Harveys, Glacier Peaks Holistics, Earth Animal, Missing Link, Four Leaf Rover and Adored Beast are good brands.
- TCVM & diet: If there is no obvious mineral deficiency, then ensuring your pet consumes a good-quality, species-appropriate, wholesome diet is important in reducing pica. According to TCVM, excessive or depraved appetite is a symptom of excessive stomach fire associated with an imbalance in the liver and gallbladder. Hence the treatment aims to cool the heat and reinstate harmony among these organs. Feed your pet cooling and neutral grains and vegetables, such as cooked brown rice, barley, millet, celery and grated beets to cool the liver. You can check out the food energetics charts on TCVM sites to learn more.
- Acupressure/acupuncture: If you can find and afford a good vet trained in acupuncture, it is a great option. If you can’t, then applying gentle digital pressure to the following points for 15–30 seconds can help.
CV14 Conception Vessel 14 is also known as the “Great Palace” and can help clear stomach fire that triggers pica. It is located on the abdominal midline, at the tip of the sternal bone called the xyphoid process. Downward massage of this point for 15 seconds can help to clear heat.
ST44 Stomach 44, or the “inner court,” regulates stomach qi and drains heat. It is particularly helpful if your pet has stomatitis or mouth sores, halitosis, and stomach pain. The point is located in the web of the hind foot between the second and third toes. Rubbing or lightly grasping the web between the toes for 10–15 seconds is beneficial.
GB41 Gallbladder 41 drains heat from the liver and gallbladder and allows the stomach, spleen and pancreas to rebalance. It is located in the depression just in front of the joining of metatarsals IV and V on the hind foot. Holding the point for 10 seconds is beneficial.
- Energy healing & animal communication: I often give pet reiki and communicate with these pets to identify the triggers and help them stop eating non-food items. Many useful insights and tips can be obtained in these sessions.
- Preventing access: Removing and/or reducing the availability of the preferred substrate or foreign material is an important managemental measure to stop or reduce pica. It is a noninvasive technique, but in some cases it can trigger extreme distress. Therefore, if you see your pet getting frustrated, it may be necessary to allow access to small quantities of the foreign material under supervised conditions.
- Reducing anxiety & stress levels: Catnip toys and catnip baths can reduce stress levels and in return reduce pica in cats. To create a catnip cat tray, sprinkle generous handfuls of loose dried catnip in a clean tray at least 35 cm (14 in.) wide, 50 cm (20 in.) long, and 10 cm (4 in.) deep. Cats can explore the scents and roll in ecstasy, releasing all those wonderful endorphins—the happy hormones for a purrfect feel-good factor.
Feliway for cats and DAP (dog-appeasing pheromone) plug-ins and collars can help with this. The herbal versions using lavender can also work well. CBDdoghealth.com makes some good CBD calming products aimed at reducing anxiety in cats and dogs.
- Environmental enrichment & exercise: Unpublished data suggests pica is less common in outdoor free-roaming house cats than in those restricted indoors, suggesting that increasing stimulation and enrichment can reduce pica. Dogs that are given interactive toys and lots of good chews, like deer antler and Himalayan yak, are less likely to indulge in pica. Increasing interaction with your pets and indulging in play are also known to reduce compulsive behaviors.
- Counter-conditioning: You can make the desired fabric or material less attractive as a food object by applying deterrents like hot sauce or mustard. Switching the vacuum on when your pet is about to start exhibiting pica or creating a noise that they hate may stop this behavior as they will begin to associate it with negative stimuli.
- Herbs: Gut Soothe from Adored Beast (AdoredBeast.com) is helpful as it contains a good combination of probiotics and herbs like licorice, L-glutamine and slippery elm. Refrigerate after opening and give it to your pet once daily with food, dosing as advised on the container.
You can also make a tincture of 10 drops each of dandelion, burdock and wood betony in 1 oz of distilled water. Give small dogs and cats 1 dropperful of this three times a day and larger dogs 1 to 3 dropperfuls twice daily as these herbs cool liver and stomach heat/fire.
- Medication: Pharmaceutical drugs to help with separation anxiety and reduce stress can be used as an adjunct to the above options. However, I recommend them only as a last resort—if nothing else stops the behavior. Your vet will guide you if it is absolutely necessary.
Pica is a complex behavioral disorder and requires you to put in a lot of effort, understanding and patience along with support from your holistic vet. Please do not punish or shout at your pet as it will make matters worse and further increase stress and pica.