Q: My cat Stewy likes to chew on plastic. I do my best to keep things away from him but you’d be surprised at how much plastic is in everything! This includes tabletops, blinds, hair clips and plastic bags from the supermarket. Why does he do this? Is he not getting enough of certain vitamins and minerals in his diet? Can this be toxic? Please advise.
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A: “Pica” is the medical term we use to describe the eating of stuff that’s simply not meant to be eaten. Why animals (and humans) do it has always been a subject of intense debate in veterinary circles.
Afflicted pets are like Stewy. They’re perfectly normal except that they like to chew and sometimes swallow anything from hair ties to rocks. In cats, litter and plastic are the most common substrates consumed.
Is he hungry? Is he lacking nutrients in his food? Does he need more outlets for his chewing drive? (Chewing behavior is not just for dogs.) Might he be suffering from a true nutritional or psychological disorder?
The truth is that we don’t know. What’s more, the why of it probably varies from patient to patient.
In all cases we have to ask the following questions:
▪ Is he receiving appropriate nutrition (calories and nutrients)?
▪ Is he suffering from any discernible biological imbalance?
▪ Is he allowed sufficient opportunities to display normal chewing behavior?
▪ Does he display any other behavioral abnormalities that might be relevant to this one?
▪ Is his health threatened by this behavior?
The approach here is to rule out any medical conditions and focus on the last question.
In Stewy’s case we first have to ask whether the plastic he chews on is toxic. Though plastic is indigestible and as such isn’t toxic, at issue is whether it’s been treated with toxic substances. Flame retardants, along with certain dyes and scents (among other additives) have all been found to be toxic to cats. As such, cats should never chew on plastics that haven’t been deemed pet safe.
Perhaps even more concerning, perhaps, is the possibility of gastrointestinal obstruction. Cats who eat linear objects, such as plastic hair ties, are especially at risk of life-threatening obstructions, as these can cut through the delicate lining of intestines as they bunch up inside them.
What to do? Provide plenty of cat-approved playthings as boredom is a big factor in these cases. But, most of all, plastic-proof your home!