By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 27 December 2012)
Many cats develop a habit of chewing on wool, fabric, or hair (or, less commonly, other materials such as cardboard or plastic). This self-comforting obsessive-compulsive behaviour is similar to thumb-sucking in human children.
Chewing or sucking fabric or wool is particularly common in cats that were weaned too early. Early weaning may also cause cats to suck on an owner’s earlobes or fingers, or attempt to suckle on other pets. Cats should never be taken from their mothers before 8 weeks of age, and ideally should stay with them for at least 12.
Wool or fabric sucking may also be triggered by stressful life events such as the death of a loved one, harassment by another pet, or moving house. In many cases, the behaviour diminishes as the cat grows older, though some cats retain it throughout their lives.
Certain breeds such as the Siamese and Burmese are more inclined to develop the habit, indicating a genetic influence as well. These breeds need to nurse for longer, and so are more likely develop neurotic habits with early weaning.
How to Stop Cats from Sucking on Wool or Fabric
The chewing habit is usually harmless unless the cat is actually swallowing pieces of fabric or knitted items (balls of wool should never be given to cats to play with, as the wool can get caught on the barbs of their tongues, forcing them to swallow over and over again). Many owners choose to simply tolerate the behaviour if items aren’t actually being ruined.
If you want to stop a cat from sucking or chewing on wool or fabric and it’s not convenient to keep targeted objects out of reach, there are safe spray-on cat deterrents such as Grannick’s Bitter Apple® and Veterinarian’s Best® Bitter Cherry Spray. If the behaviour is caused by a stressful life event, providing additional reassurance and attention can be beneficial. Giving the cat something similar to the targeted item that he’s allowed to chew can also help.
When attempting to train a cat not to chew fabrics, it’s important not to give the behaviour any attention, positive or negative, as this will reinforce it. Don’t make a fuss or punish the cat for sucking or chewing on cloth or wool – this is unlikely to reduce the behaviour, and may actually increase it.
How to Stop Cats from Chewing on Hair
If your hair is the target, putting it up under a cap can help break the habit. In some cases hair chewing is caused by a love of hair products (some of which contain oils or fats that taste delicious to pets) rather than stress or early weaning. In such cases, switching to a less-tasty hair product should solve the problem.
If the cat is interested in hair only when her owner has been in the pool recently, it’s the chlorine that’s attracting her. Washing hair directly after swimming will prevent hair chewing in such cases.
For more articles on the way cats think and the reasons why they do the things they do, visit the main Cat Psychology, Communication, and Behaviour page. For a full list of cat articles, see the main Cats page.
- Hillestad, K., DVM., Drs. Foster & Smith Veterinary & Aquatic Services Department. (2010). “Fabric Eating (Wool Sucking) in Cats.” PetEducation.com.
- Pukey, B., DVM. (5 May 2008). “Nothing Odd About Cat Chewing Fabric.” Canada.com.