Why Cats Eat Things That They Shouldn’t

We think that cats are picky and extremely discriminating.  How can it be that they would willingly swallow inanimate objects that can lodge in their intestines?  The answer to this question is a mystery.  It could be that their hunting and stalking behavior gets the best of them.  Cats like to chase and pounce on quick moving objects, and then ingest them as they would prey.  I have observed my own cat attempt to swallow the string on her “fishing pole” bird toy.  I now keep her toys in a closed closet whenever they are not in use.

Another possible explanation for the ingestion of foreign objects is boredom.  Cats like to indulge in attention seeking behaviors.  Some cats seem to like being scolded and chased away from trouble.  Playing with items that they fish out of trashcans can be a game.  Unraveling balls of yarn or pulling apart a carpet or drape can be lots of fun.  It is even more fun for the cat when you yell and run after him!

Some cats become obsessive about certain objects.  Are they attracted by some type of smell or taste?  There is actually a syndrome in Oriental breed cats that like to suck woolen things, showing a breed predisposition to this.

At my cat clinic, the variety of objects that have been removed from the gastrointestinal tracts of cats is amazing.  Rubber seems to be a substance some cats are attracted to and then accidentally ingest.  Since rubber bounces and is easy to bat around, it is possible that the cats mistook the items for prey as they played with them.  Rubber is not very digestible, and fortunately it usually shows up on x-rays.  Some rubber items that we have removed include a stopper from a vial, a “Koosh” ball, elastic hair ties, and rubber stamps.  If you notice your cat playing with small objects like these, be sure to pick them up and put them away in a drawer or cabinet.  When cats eat elastic hair ties, it is usually not just one.  I have removed as many as a dozen from one cat.  He had probably eaten them over several weeks and started vomiting when they finally caused an obstruction. Don’t leave items like these lying around.

Cats will sometimes swallow metal objects.  Metal shows up well on x-rays, so diagnosing their ingestion is easy if an x-ray is taken.  We have removed sewing needles, a blue jeans button, and coins from the stomachs and intestines of cats.   Interesting, non-metallic items we have surgically removed are leather tassels off of a handbag and plastic buttons.

Surgery or endoscopy can remove foreign objects from the gastrointestinal tracts of cats.  Most veterinarians do not have endoscopes, which are fiber optic scopes that have attachments with little claws.  Surgical removal of foreign objects is more common and performed by most veterinarians.

The key to successful treatment of foreign object ingestion is early diagnosis. Objects have to be of certain composition and density to be detectable on x-rays.  X-rays are excellent diagnostic tools, but many objects cannot be observed on x-rays.

As a cat owner, it is important to recognize signs that your pet is not eating or feeling normally.  The signs associated with foreign object ingestion are drooling, frequent vomiting, projectile vomiting, anorexia, diarrhea, depression, and dehydration.  These signs warrant an examination by a veterinarian.  Obviously, if you have any reason to suspect that your cat has swallowed a foreign object, you should alert your veterinarian immediately.

If x-rays do not conclusively diagnose the presence of a foreign object, one next diagnostic step is a contrast dye study of the stomach and intestines (upper GI series).  Dye normally moves quickly through the gastrointestinal tract.  Certain foreign objects will restrict or obstruct the flow of dye.  Strings may create a bunching appearance of the intestines.  Despite a dye study, small strings or threads that have not progressed to intestinal bunching may still be undetectable.

Abdominal ultrasound is another diagnostic test useful in finding foreign objects and obstructions.  Unfortunately there are objects and situations that cannot be confirmed with any of these imaging techniques.

The decision to surgically explore a suspected case of foreign object ingestion is based on examination, diagnostic imaging, and lack of response to medical treatment.  Although proceeding with surgery without a definitive diagnosis sounds aggressive, it could make the difference between life and death of the cat.  The longer a foreign object is present in the gastrointestinal tract, the more damage it can do.

Some of the foreign objects that cats eat will pass through their gastrointestinal tracts.  Many owners express surprise when they observe rubber bands or pieces of plastic bags in their cat’s stools.  They never knew that their cat had been chewing on these things.  It is impossible to monitor every move your cat makes during the day, but if you observe that your cat likes to chew or eat objects, you need to put them securely away.  It is difficult to train a cat to leave items alone.  Strategies are using bad tasting sprays or giving the cat alternative toys or safe items to chew.  Cats with obsessive-compulsive disorders that cannot be broken of chewing need medication.  Some cats require confinement when not supervised.

Playing with your cat and having him chase flying objects on strings is healthy.  It fulfills the cat’s need to hunt, chase, and pounce.  Being aware of your cat’s chewing habits and possible objects that could be ingested might save his life.  Owners should be alerted by any projectile vomiting or inability to hold down food or water. The secretive nature of cats makes figuring out all of their activities, including what they have chewed or eaten, quite difficult. If you cannot curb your cat’s obsession with eating things, speak to your veterinarian about it.

Written by Dr. Wexler-Mitchell of The Cat Care Clinic in Orange, CA
Copyright © 2011 The Cat Care Clinic

About Dr. Elaine Wexler-Mitchell

Dr. Elaine Wexler-Mitchell is the owner of The Cat Care Clinic in Orange, CA
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