What Causes Cats or Kittens to Eat Dirt, Kitty Litter, or Plastic, or Lick Photographs?

Kitten with Starbug

Many kittens eat litter out of curiosity, whereas in adult cats, this behaviour usually indicates a dietary deficiency or psychological problem.

Why Kittens Eat Kitty Litter

Kitty litter eating is a common problem among kittens that are going through the weaning process. Young kittens may test various substances to determine whether or not they qualify as food. For this reason, clumping litter should never be used with kittens, and litter should be cleaned soon after it has been soiled.

If you catch your kitten eating litter, pick her up and remove the litter from her mouth immediately. Curious kittens (and in some cases, adult cats) may also swallow coins, paperclips, sewing needles, and other objects they find lying around, so put small objects away when not in use.

Why Adult Cats Eat Dirt or Cat Litter

The condition that causes adult cats to eat litter, dirt, or other inappropriate objects is called pica. Pica may be caused by:

    • Nutritional deficiency
    • Medical problems (such as neurological disorders or pancreatitis)
    • Stress over household changes (such as the introduction of a new pet)
    • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
    • Boredom

Pica can cause cats to eat objects that may poison them, damage their teeth, or obstruct their digestive tracts, leading to life-threatening complications, so a veterinarian should be consulted if a cat shows signs of pica.

If the cat is sucking or chewing on wool or fabric but not actually consuming the material, this is not pica. Rather, it usually indicates that the cat was weaned too early or is suffering from stress. Eating grass is also a normal behaviour, and nothing to worry about (unless the grass has been sprayed with pesticides).

Why Cats Eat Soap

Veterinarian Michael Fox notes that cats and dogs that eat soap are probably craving something they’re not getting from their diets. Soaps (and many moisturizers and hair products) contain fats and oils that pets find appealing.

An animal that regularly tries to eat soap or moisturizer may not be getting enough fat in his diet. If your cat is attracted to soaps or moisturizers, keep these products out of reach as many contain toxic substances.

Why Cats Lick Photographs or Eat Plastic

Veterinarian Arnold Plotnick proposes a similar theory to explain why some cats eat plastic or lick photographs. Tallow (rendered animal fat), petroleum products, and gelatin are used in the manufacturing of some plastics, and gelatin is also used in photograph emulsion. Cats that are drawn to plastics and photographs may be suffering from pica.

What to Do if Your Cat Eats Inappropriate Items

If your cat is eating or licking cat litter, dirt, soap, or other inappropriate objects or substances:

    • Consult a veterinarian to rule out medical problems and discuss diet and supplementation options.
    • If litter eating is the problem, change the type of litter in case something about a particular brand is causing the cat to perceive it as food.
    • Keep targeted objects out of reach whenever possible or spray them with safe deterrents such as such as Grannick’s Bitter Apple® or Veterinarian’s Best® Bitter Cherry Spray.
    • If the problem is psychological, try to eliminate or reduce the stressor and provide extra attention.
    • Rather than a couple of large meals, feed many small meals and provide a pot of cat grass to give the cat something healthy to chew.
    • Try play therapy to reduce stress.
    • Provide an enriched environment to reduce boredom.
    • In extreme cases, a veterinarian may prescribe anti-anxiety medication.

If your cat shows any signs of poisoning such as persistent vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, or lethargy, consult a veterinarian immediately, particularly if she has a history of eating or licking inappropriate objects.

For more cat articles, see the main Cats page.

References:

    • American Animal Hospital Association. (2010). “Pica: When Your Pet Eats Things That Aren’t Food.” HealthyPet.com.
    • Bower, J., & Bower, C. (1998). The Cat Owner’s Problem Solver. Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest Association, Inc./Andromeda Oxford Limited.
    • Breyer, M. (4 October 2009). “Does Your Cat Eat Strange Things?” Care2.com.
    • Fox, M. (1989). The New Animal Doctor’s Answer Book. New York, NY: Newmarket Press.
    • Plotnick, A., DVM. (26 July 2006). “ Pica: When Cats Eat Weird Things.” MahattanCats.com.
    • Trott, K., & Snell, T., UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. (n.d.). “Unusual Eating Habits in Dogs and Cats.” VetMed.UCDavis.edu.
    • Van Lienden, R., DVM. (18 April 2006). “Cat Eating Cat Litter – Answered by Dr. Van Lienden.” Pets.ca.

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