Cats who eat plastic are exhibiting a dangerous behavioral urge called pica. Whether they’re chewing on plastic bags, eating sandals, or biting into the covering of electrical wires, consuming plastic can be life-threatening for cats. Here’s what you need to know about pica, including how to break your kitty of this bad habit for good.

By Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB
August 24, 2020
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Why would a well-fed cat eating three squares a day decide to also eat plastic? It's unlikely that it tastes good. Maybe cats who eat plastic are concerned about climate change. After all, eating plastic is better than sending it to the landfill, right?

While it’s unlikely that your cat is making a feeble attempt at recycling, some cats eat plastic—whether it be the covering on wires, plastic bags, or flip flops—no matter how much their owners tempt them with more appropriate treats, and this behavior can leave owners feeling baffled. 

It might seem like a silly quirk or an annoying habit, but cats who eat plastic are exhibiting a dangerous behavioral urge called pica, and the consequences associated with it can be life-threatening. Ingested plastic can become lodged in the intestine requiring emergency surgery. Kitties can suffer burns or can be electrocuted from chewing wires. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to break your beloved feline of this bad habit for good.

The Three Most Common Reasons Why Your Cat Is Eating Plastic

Behaviors have three major influencers: your cat’s DNA, his health status, and his life experiences. Certain cat breeds, such as Burmese and Siamese, are more likely to engage in pica. If you have a kitty who is purebred or is a Burmese or Siamese cross, preventative measures should be taken to ensure that he doesn’t develop pica. 

Next, let’s talk about your cat’s health. Cats are secret holders. They are thoughtful creatures who don’t always tell you exactly how they feel. Pain and discomfort are not easily assessed until the problem is severe, and cats who exhibit pica may be experiencing a host of gastrointestinal problems including inflammatory bowel disease, intestinal blockage, decreased nutrition, and intestinal parasites. In other words, your cat might be eating plastic because of a larger health issue. 

Finally, your cat’s life experiences can shape his behavior. If your cat is frustrated, under enriched, or stressed, he may eat things he shouldn’t. If left untreated, pica can become a compulsive behavior that often will require lifetime treatment including medications.

How to Prevent Your Cat from Eating Plastic in the First Place

If your kitty is a Siamese, Burmese, or a cross of these breeds, take preventative measures early; otherwise, your cat might start this behavior before his first birthday. One of the best things you can do to ward off pica is to keep your cat busy. 

Most cats live pretty boring lives, staying home all the time, eating, hanging out with you, and playing with sparkly balls. But cats are highly intelligent and curious creatures, and boredom can lead to trouble as your four-legged friend tries to find things in the environment to keep himself occupied.

Enrich your cat's life by offering three different types of toys a day. Watch what he plays with and then purchase those types of toys in different styles or colors. By finding his preference and then purchasing that type of toy, you will ensure he doesn’t get bored. If there are items you don’t want your kitten or new cat to chew on, pick them up, and put them away to limit his access.

How to Get Your Cat to Stop Eating Plastic

If your kitty is already exhibiting pica, the first thing to do is take him to the veterinarian. Discuss your kitty’s diet and bowel movements with your veterinarian, and be sure to bring up any other signs that would be considered out of the norm; some examples are vomiting or coughing. Your veterinarian will do a fecal test and a physical examination. She may also recommend lab work in order to get a clearer diagnosis.

If your veterinarian says your kitty is otherwise healthy, try the tips below to reduce pica. If these tips and the trip to the veterinarian don’t help, ask for a referral to a veterinary behaviorist. You can find one from the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists

Enrich Your Cat’s Environment

Remember: Enrichment is more than toys. It includes vertical space (resting spaces), hiding space, training, stimulation of the senses, things to chew on, and toys to hunt. Another way to keep your cat busy is to teach him some new tricks. By teaching your cat to come to you when you call him, you can call him away from negative behaviors. You can find out more about training in these books: Decoding Your Cat and The Trainable Cat

Remove or Restrict Your Cat’s Access to Plastic

Pick up grocery bags, close doors to rooms with plastic-coated cords, and put away any stray items that might tempt your cat. You may even need to confine your cat to a room when you can’t monitor him. If you choose to give your cat his own room, make sure it has food, water, a comfy bed, a window, and lots to do. 

Offer Chew Toy Alternatives

You’ll also want to get creative and offer safe items that will feel the same as plastic in his mouth. This may mean looking at chews that are intended for dogs or thinking outside of the box. Try dehydrated or freeze-dried meats or safe dog chews. If that’s not possible, give him something you know is safe for him to chew on. Cat grass or catnip are great options as long as catnip doesn’t make your cat upset. You can also use food toys to satiate his need to use his mouth. The world of toys that spill food is infinite. Just remember to introduce these to your cat slowly, and make the toy easy at first and use his favorite treats.

Use Bitter Sprays

If all else fails, apply bitter-tasting sprays to items that are frequently chewed or at risk of being chewed. This may deter your cat, but it will not keep him from chewing on the next, untreated item he finds. It’s unrealistic to try and spray everything that you own, so this tactic is best used in conjunction with at least one other.