Unusual Eating Habits in Cats

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Definitions

Cats will sometimes eat strings, rubber bands, towels, or other objects, which may result in a variety of problems for both you and your pet. Not only can your possessions be destroyed or damaged, but these objects can produce life-threatening blockages in your pet’s intestines. Eating non-food items is called pica. A specific type of pica is stool eating (either their own or that of another animal) and, while not necessarily dangerous to the animal, is probably unacceptable to you. Stool-eating is called coprophagy.

The causes of pica and coprophagy are not known. Many ideas have been proposed by various experts, but none have been proven or disproven. Such behaviors may sometimes be attention-getting behaviors. If engaging in one of these behaviors results in some type of social interaction between the animal and his owner (even a verbal scolding) then the behavior may be reinforced and occur more frequently. These behaviors may be attempts to obtain a necessary nutrient lacking in the diet, although no nutritional studies have ever substantiated this idea. They may stem from frustration or anxiety. It is also possible the behaviors began as play, as the animal investigates and chews on the objects, then subsequently they began to eat or ingest them.

It has been suggested that coprophagy is carried over from the normal parental behavior of ingesting the waste of young offspring. Some experts believe coprophagy occurs more often in animals that live in relatively barren environments, are frequently confined to small areas and/or receive limited attention from their owners. Coprophagy is rarely seen in cats but can occur.

Because pica and coprophagy are behaviors that are not well understood, stopping them may require assistance from an animal behavior professional who works individually with owners and their pets. A variety of specialized behavior modification behavior techniques may be necessary to resolve these problems (see our handout: “When the Behavior Helpline Can’t Help”).

Coprophagy

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Health Risks:

In Colorado’s dry climate, parasites are not as much of a problem as in other parts of the country. If your cat is parasite-free and is eating only his own stools, he can’t be infected with parasites by doing so. However if you have an outdoor cat, who is eating the stools of another animal that has parasites, it may be possible, although still unlikely, for your cat to become infected. Some parasites, such as giardia, cause diarrhea, and most coprophagic cats ingest only formed stools. There is also a delayed period before the parasites in the stools can re-infect another animal.

Most parasites require intermediate hosts (they must pass through the body of another species, such as a flea) before they can re-infect another dog or cat. Thus, your cat is much more likely to become infected with parasites through fleas or by eating birds and rodents than by coprophagy. Most parasites are also species-specific, meaning that cats cannot be infected by eating dog stools. Health risks to humans from being licked in the face by a coprophagic animal are minimal. For more information, please contact your veterinarian.

Pica

Pica can be a serious problem because items such as rubber bands, towels, and string can severely damage or block an animal’s intestines. In some instances, the items must be surgically removed. Because pica can be potentially life-threatening, it’s advisable to consult both your veterinarian and an animal behavior professional for help.

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What Doesn’t Work for Coprophagy or Pica: