Why Do Cats Chew Wool?

Cats love to chase and bite non-food objects, but ingesting those things can cause serious health concerns.

Eating non-food items is called pica. By: Gavin St. Ours

Christy, my first seal point Siamese, had a thing for wool. One afternoon, I spotted her on top of a chair, nuzzling Mom’s bright-pink sweater. At least, I thought she was nuzzling it.

Closer examination revealed that she’d chewed a dime-sized hole in it. I artistically rearranged the sweater and stole away with Christy, hoping against hope that Mom wouldn’t notice. After all, it was only a little hole.

When I came home from school the next day, Mom was sitting on the chair looking mournfully at her sweater. It looked like a piece of pink Swiss cheese. Apparently, I’d underestimated Christy’s work ethic.

Strange Tastes

Chewing or sucking wool is a form of pica, a desire to eat things that do not belong to any recognized food group in this universe.

Cats will lick, chew and sometimes even “swallow non-food items such as plastic or fabric,” maintain Doctors Foster and Smith. “Sometimes the items just pass completely through the digestive system, but there’s always the chance they could lead to an intestinal obstruction. … In most cases, the licking and chewing these cats do may be annoying, but it is not dangerous to the cat.”

If your cat stops eating, starts vomiting and/or having diarrhea or acts lethargic, call your vet.

Wool is not the only nontraditional food on the list. Others are cotton, synthetics, upholstery, terrycloth towels, bookmark tassels and stuffed-animal tails. Plastic grocery bags rate pretty high as well.

The real concern, I think, is not the constant licking but the possibility that your cat might upgrade to chewing and end up ingesting bits of plastic.

There’s some speculation that kittens who are weaned young are more likely to develop pica. The behavior doesn’t start right away, according to Foster and Smith — it often kicks in when the kitten is a few months old, “and many cats seem to outgrow it by about 2 years [old].”

The Cornell Book of Cats writers feel that pica doesn’t really become a problem of clinical proportions until the kitten reaches cathood. However, they do agree that it seems to have a connection with feeding “because it can be stimulated by fasting and inhibited by access to plants, bones or food.”

That’s not a meal, kitty. By: Victor U

It’s a Siamese Thing

And a Burmese thing. And a Birman thing.

Mary Kolencik, a Maryland breeder, had several Siamese cats who shared a liking for plastic bags. “My cats range from casual lickers to those that habitually lick grocery bags,” she remarked. “Right now I have 4 littermates that constantly lick grocery bags for hours, and their 2 littermates do not lick at all. Those that lick go hunting in the middle of the night to find a bag.”

Another breeder lost a young Birman — not to pica but to pneumonia, after emergency surgery for a pica-inspired blockage.

Drs. Foster and Smith maintain that “Oriental breeds tend to have a longer, natural nursing period than other cat breeds. Kittens being raised by breeders are generally weaned at 6–7 weeks of age, and it is possible that this shorter nursing period frustrated the natural instincts of the Oriental breeds and promotes a tendency toward this behavior.”

Because I’ve never bred Siamese, Burmese or Birman kittens, I can’t swear to this. Magwitch, our snowshoe Siamese, definitely has the wool-chewing urge. He was separated from his mom when he was very young and had to be bottle-fed. So maybe there’s something to that theory.

These playful kitties cats can’t get enough of wool yarn:

Remedies

Because wool-chewing may “represent a craving for fiber or indigestible roughage,” the Cornell vets suggest giving your cat “plant material that is safe” or offering him an old wool sweater or sock.

I agree with the first part but not with the second part, which muddies the issue for your cat. More importantly, it still puts him at risk for a blockage.

But you can give your felines rawhides designed specifically for cats or pieces of whole chicken. That’s because “in videos of cats with pica, they often chew fabric with their back molars as if they are chewing prey,” observes veterinarian Dr. Karen Overall, VMD, PhD.

Stress may also play a part, so exercise your cat. Make his environment as interesting as possible and consider getting him a friend. It can’t hurt, and it could make a world of difference.

T.J. Banks

View posts by T.J. Banks
T.J. Banks is the author of several books, including Catsong, a collection of her best cat stories, which was the winner of a Merial Human–Animal Bond Award. A contributing editor to laJoie, T.J. has received writing awards from the Cat Writers’ Association (CWA), ByLine and The Writing Self. Her writing has been widely anthologized.

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