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Compulsive Feeding Behavior

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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Many cats suffer from eating compulsions. Two of the most common compulsions are wool sucking or eating non-food items (pica) and compulsive overeating. Like people, cats seem to engage in compulsive disorders when their natural behaviors are somehow thwarted. For house cats, frustration arises because of poor management practices and/or a restrictive environment.

But genetic factors are also involved. Compulsive eating behaviors, such as wool sucking or pica, occurs primarily in oriental breeds of cats. However, compulsive overeating may occur in any breed, and when it does, it leads to obesity with all its associated health problems.

Roots of Eating Compulsions

"Wool sucking" may be related to relative or absolute early weaning. It often starts as nursing behavior directed toward the queen's (or another cat's) coat. Misdirected (or redirected) nursing subsequently generalizes to other furry substrates, such as woolen clothes, acrylic fabrics, blankets, etc. As affected cats matures, the sucking behavior may evolve to become pica (compulsive eating behavior in which the cat's attentions broaden to include a range of non-food items, such plastic shower curtains, shoelaces, and running gear). Pica can lead to intestinal obstruction. Pica can arise as a result of nutritional deficiencies, e.g. iron deficiency and dietary fiber deficiency, though such causes are comparatively rare.

Certain breeds are more prone to wool sucking. Siamese cats seem to be particularly susceptible, accounting for approximately 50 percent of those affected. It is hypothesized that the higher prevalence in Siamese cats and other oriental breeds may be because these breeds have a naturally longer weaning period than other breeds. Since most cats are weaned by breeders at around 6 to 7 weeks of age, it is possible that breed-specific late weaning requirements are frustrated by this practice, thus leading to aberrant nursing behaviors, like wool sucking.

Feeding compulsions do not necessarily entail redirection of feeding behaviors on to inappropriate non-food items. Some cats massively overeat and become obese. In such cases, where a cat's nutritional needs are more than satisfied, compulsive overeating may be a result of stress or anxiety and be a result of environmental factors, e.g. boredom. See your veterinarian to rule out medical causes for pica and overeating. Medical causes include anemia, diabetes, and brain tumors.

Home Care

Wool sucking: Change the diet to a high fiber dry food with free choice feeding.

Compulsive overeating: Switch to twice daily feeding of high fiber food. Monitor weight loss weekly. Avoid precipitous weight reduction in obese cats by adjusting the amount fed to prevent the development of hepatic lipidosis. Veterinary advice is necessary before dieting cats.

Enrich the cat's environment: Provide opportunities for your cat to perform species-typical behaviors, e.g. provide an assortment of mobile toys to stimulate play predatory activities.

Here are a few specific ideas to enrich your cat's life.

  • Play with your cat using a wand with feathers on one end as a predatory lure.

  • Pull a cheese treat or crumpled paper ball attached to a piece of string across the floor

  • Bury dry food treats under objects to get your cat to hunt for them

  • Freeze bits of raw fish into ice cubes for your cats to lick and play with

  • Employ food puzzles such as a ball or cube that releases dry food when batted around

  • Show videos of fluttering birds or wheel running rodents (plus sound effects)

  • Attach a bird feeder outside a window and/or employ a secured fish tank for your cat's interest and occupation

  • Employ feathered mobiles for your cat to play with or watch on its own

  • Garnish your home with myriad small furry toys, such as toy mice, etc.

  • Ensure a regular supply of catnip-enhanced cat toys

    Veterinary Care

    Your veterinarian may recommend anti-obsessional drug therapy. Anti-obsessional drugs, like clomipramine (Clomicalm®) and fluoxetine (Prozac®) are the effective treatments. These drugs must be prescribed by and administered under the strict direction of your veterinarian. They may take 4 to 6 weeks to start working and the peak effect may not be seen for 3 to 4 months.

    Clomipramine is a serotonin re-uptake inhibitor that can be used to treat compulsive behaviors. The latent period is from 3 to 4 weeks when compulsive disorders are the target of therapy. The duration of treatment varies between individuals, ranging from 2 months to long term (lifetime) and depends to some extent on the immediate outcome.

    Some cats do not respond at all, others respond to a limited extent (about 60 to 70 percent improvement). Some cats, however, are almost completely cured by such medication. At the conclusion of treatment, a gradual weaning off regimen should be used tapering the dose over three weeks. Possible side effects of treatment include reduced appetite, sedation, social withdrawal, and urinary retention (so-called anticholinergic side effects). If these effects are seen, the dose should be decreased or the medication withheld for while, but talk with your veterinarian first before altering the dosage.

    Fluoxetine is another antiobsessional antidepressant that can be used to treat compulsive behaviors. The latency period is normally two to four weeks and treatment should be continued for one month after symptoms have disappeared. The length of treatment varies between individual cases, ranging from two months to long term (lifetime). A gradual weaning off regimen should be used to terminate treatment. Possible side effects include restlessness and reduced appetite. If these side effects are seen, the dose should be decreased or interrupted. Again, follow your veterinarian's directions and talk with him or her first before ceasing or altering the dosage.


    **This article was excerpted from the CD entitled "Behavior Problems in Cats - Etiology, Diagnostics and Treatments" by Dr. Nicholas Dodman, Professor of Clinical Sciences at Tufts University, School of Veterinary Medicine, © 1998, Trustees of Tufts College. To buy a full copy of the CD, contact
    www.tufts.edu/vet/mediaservices .

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