Why do cats chew on plastic?
Cats are weird. They chew on plastic and sometimes they eat it. If you’re reading this and you have a cat, you probably already know that.
But why do cats chew on plastic? There is more than one reason your cat may be attracted to plastic. Let’s look at all the possible reasons.
Plastic bags taste like food
Plastic bags – the annoying kind you get at the grocery store, the kind that rips at the most inopportune moments, that kills sea animals by the millions and poisons the earth as they disintegrate – are probably one of your cat’s all-time favorite things.
But they crinkle, and they are fun! And most importantly, they smell like good things to eat.
If you’ve carried your groceries home in yours, they probably smell and taste like whatever you brought home from the store. Maybe a little meat juice leaked onto them from that Saran-wrapped Styrofoam tray of ground beef. Maybe a little of the dried milk from the outside of the jug flaked off into the bag. You can’t smell it, but your cat can. Cats have 200 million odor sensors in their noses; humans have only 5 million.
Even if you didn’t bring groceries home in your plastic bags, they might still smell like good eating to cats. This is because plastic bags are manufactured with “slip agents” to keep them from sticking together. These include some strange chemicals like oleic acid and stearamide, which may be made from rendered animal fats.
There are also “biodegradable” plastics that are made from corn. Even though they are highly processed, it’s possible they still smell like food to cats. We don’t really know.
Plastic is interesting
Is your cat batting around the plastic ring from a milk jug? Is he shredding a plastic bag?
Plastic is an interesting material for some curious cats, who might just take their fascination a little too far.
A cool and slippery plastic bag might have started out as a fun surface to nap on. But as your cat’s engagement with the bag intensifies, he might try licking or chewing it.
The crinkling of the bag, or the way the milk-jug ring skitters across the kitchen floor, may stimulate the predatory drive for cats who are biologically programmed to catch and eat prey. Consuming the plastic might be the last step in the predatory sequence, the four-step hunting process that cats use to find and consume food:
You cat has found the bag, stalked the bag, and pounced on the bag. Now he must eat it.
Dental problems (or teething)
If your kitten is chewing plastic, she could be teething. Kittens lose their baby teeth between three and six months of age to make room in their mouths for adult teeth. Just like human babies, teething can be uncomfortable for kittens, causing them to chomp down on various objects in an attempt to find relief. You usually know if it’s teething if plastic isn’t the only thing your kitten sinks her teeth into. (There are other signs, too: such as meowing more, drooling, crankiness, and even bad breath.) Luckily this stage is short-lived.
If your adult cat suddenly starts chewing plastic items, which could be anything from electric cords to plastic straws, it could be a sign that he is experiencing a dental issue.
Common dental issues include gingivitis, periodontitis, and tooth resorption. Gingivitis is a condition in which the gums around the teeth become swollen and painful, usually from a buildup of plaque and bacteria on the surface of the teeth. If gingivitis isn’t treated, it can progress to periodontitis, which can cause permanent damage to the tissues that keep the tooth attached to the jaw. Tooth resorption is another unfortunately common painful dental problem in cats that can cause permanent tooth damage.
Dental issues can be extremely painful and affected cats may not want to chew on anything at all, including their dinner. But some, especially those experiencing early disease, could attempt to relieve some of their discomfort by chewing on plastic.
If you suspect your cat may be experiencing dental problems, please have your cat seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible so she can get relief from pain and to prevent the condition from getting worse.
Pica is the urge to eat non-food items, like cat litter or soil – or plastic. So, pica is kind of both a description of what cats are doing when they’re eating plastic, but also an explanation of why some cats eat plastic.
There are three things that can cause a cat to engage in pica: genetics, health concerns, and life experiences.
Certain cat breeds have a greater tendency to eat things that aren’t food, which suggests that genetics could be at play when a cat engages in pica. Pica seems to be most common among Oriental Shorthairs, Burmese, Birman, and Siamese cats, for example.
Pica can be a sign of a health problem. Pica seems to be correlated with feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus, and possibly triggered by diabetes and brain tumors. Pica could also be related to gastrointestinal problems such as inflammatory bowel disease, an intestinal blockage, or intestinal parasites. In other words, a cat might be eating plastic as a way to deal with a bigger health issue.
Pica can also be a reflection of what may be going on in an individual cat’s life. More on that below.
Boredom and stress
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A cat who is frustrated, stressed, or lacking sufficient enrichment may eat things she shouldn’t, including plastic. If you do not address the frustration, stress, and boredom, plastic-eating and other forms of pica can turn into a compulsive behavior that becomes so ingrained it will require a lifetime of treatment.
Cats are intelligent, curious creatures. It’s your job to keep your cat busy and fulfilled.
The way to do that is to create an enriched home environment for your cat. Provide toys that offer a wide variety of textures and sounds when they’re played with or chewed. If your cat likes crinkly plastic bags, substitute crinkly balls, for example. You can never have too many of these.
Create vertical spaces for cats to perch, like this window seat. Provide hiding spaces (which is why I make cardboard box playhouses), things to chew on (like these silvervine sticks), and toys to hunt (like these fishing rod toys).
Play with your cat daily. Consider training your cat to perform a trick. Tire your cat out both physically and mentally.
Perhaps stress is behind your cat’s plastic eating. Look at your cat’s world from his perspective. What might be causing stress?
Is there some kind of relentless, subtle conflict between your cat and another cat or dog in the household? Have there been changes to your living situation, like the addition of new baby? (If so, read, “Do cats get jealous?”). Has your cat experienced the death of a family member? Have you recently moved, or even just moved the furniture? Have you changed jobs? (If so, read, “Separation Anxiety in Cats.”)
If you believe stress or frustration is causing your cat to eat plastic, try to identify the cause and then address it. Even if you cannot change the source of stress (you’re not giving the new baby back, are you?) there may be steps you can take to ameliorate the stress your cat is experiencing.
Why is eating plastic dangerous?
Your cat may want to eat plastic, but you definitely do not want your cat to eat plastic.
A piece of plastic that is small enough to fit completely in your cat’s mouth is a choking hazard.
If your cat manages to not choke on a small piece of plastic, but swallows it instead, it could become lodged in her intestines, causing an obstruction that prevents water and food from passing through. An obstruction is life-threatening and requires emergency surgery.
Even if the plastic item doesn’t cause an obstruction, the sharp edge of a plastic shard could tear his stomach or intestines.
If your cat is eating plastic, you must find a way to prevent it from happening.
What else you can do to prevent your cat from eating plastic
The most obvious thing you should do – while you’re assiduously working to resolve whatever is causing your cat to want to eat plastic – is to restrict your cat’s access to plastic. Keep plastic bags out of reach. Lock them in a cabinet, or better yet, switch to paper or cloth shopping bags.
Close the door to rooms with plastic-coated electrical cords. If you have to, confine your cat to a plastic-free room if you’re not going to be there to monitor him.
If you can’t completely separate your cat from plastic, use a bitter spray, like Grannick’s Bitter Apple, on things that are frequently chewed or at risk of being chewed. But don’t trust that this product will work on your cat. There are some who are such die-hard plastic chewers that they’ll chew even if the plastic tastes terrible. Also, you may need to reapply the product fairly frequently.
Try offering your chewing cat something that is safer than plastic, like a dried meat chew, like this one by Sheba, or this one by True. Some cats enjoy munching on “cat grass” (which is typically oats or wheat), typically sold in an inexpensive kit, like this one by SmartyKat. It may or may not be a good substitute for plastic, from your cat's point of view.
A last word on plastic-chewing
It’s not easy to prevent your very independent, very determined cat from doing what he wants to do, especially if that means eating plastic, and especially in our world, where plastic is ubiquitous. There may not be a single solution, and it may not be simple. But protecting your cat is most definitely worth it.
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