Abnormal Eating Behaviour in Cats

Pet Tales
by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

Unusual Eating Behaviours of Cats

There are truly abnormal or atypical eating behaviours that can be observed in cats. However, many unusual behaviours are actually normal behaviours that owners may find objectionable.

Coprophagia or the eating of stool or feces by their pet is quite repulsive to many owners. In puppies, it is considered a not uncommon vice or bad habit that can develop in the first few months of their life. Usually, it is simply outgrown, although occasionally steps must be taken to discourage the trait. In queens with kittens less than 30 days of age it is normal behaviour. The mother cat stimulates the kitten to pass urine and feces by grooming the kitten where it eliminates these wastes. The mother then consumes these products of elimination. It is an important maternal instinct in the female cat, for the well-being of her offspring. It helps maintain sanitation and reduce odours in the nest area. This is particularly valuable for feral cats in order to lessen the attraction of predators who could threaten the young. It is common for cats to continue this behaviour until the kittens are weaned.

Plant and grass eating is another natural behaviour of cats. Various explanations have been given for why they do this. Plants and grass cannot be digested by a cat's gastrointestinal system. They act as local irritants and often stimulate vomiting. Hence it is possible grass may act as a purgative to help expel ingested hair or other indigestible material. However not all cats will vomit and the plant material is passed in the stool unchanged. It is unlikely grass eating indicates a nutritional deficiency. It may just be something for the cat to do to occupy its time or to satisfy an urge to mouth or crunch something.

The smell or ingestion of catnip can cause wild behaviour in some cats for 5- 15 minutes after exposure. The active ingredient, cis-transnepetalactone, is thought to act as a hallucinogen for cats. Cats may respond to catnip by head rubbing and shaking, salivating, gazing, skin twitches, rolling and animated leaping. Only 50 - 70% of cats show a behavioural response to catnip which may suggest a genetic basis for the response. A chronic state of partial unawareness has been reported in cats with prolonged exposure to this plant material.

Wool chewing is another abnormal behaviour known to occur in cats. The behaviour usually begins near sexual maturity. Cats begin to lick, suck, chew or eat wool or other clothing material. Siamese, Siamese-cross and Burmese cats appear more likely to be affected. This suggests a genetic link to the condition; however, the cause is poorly understood. The most successful measure to control wool-chewing is to limit access to attractive materials, although feeding a high fiber food on a free choice basis seems to help some cats.

Prolonged nursing behaviour causing kittens to continue non-nutritional sucking, which normally subsides near weaning, can occur. Kittens may develop nursing vices when they are deprived of normal nursing behaviour because they were orphaned, prematurely weaned or bottle fed. Such kittens will often nurse tails, ears, skin folds, and/or genitalia of their littermates. When they are separated from their siblings, they may transfer sucking vices to people, stuffed toys, clothing or other pets.

Finally, fixed -food preferences can develop in cats. The food type fed by an owner during a kitten's first six months influences the pattern of food preferences throughout its life. Cats with food fixations can be particularly a problem if for some reason a diet change becomes necessary. It can be very dangerous to attempt to convert to another food by offering the cat nothing else other than the new one. If, for whatever reason, a cat refuses to eat for a few days, serious consequences may result. Not eating can precipitate a potentially fatal disorder when body fat is mobilized, causing the liver to fail. The disease is called hepatitic lipidosis or fatty liver syndrome. Diet changes should occur gradually with assurance the cat is eating adequately, all the while.