Feeding Compulsion in Cats
Some cats suffer from eating compulsions. Two of the most common compulsions include wool sucking/eating non-food items (pica) and compulsive overeating. Like people, cats engage in compulsive disorders as an outlet when their natural behaviors are somehow frustrated by poor management practices and/or a restrictive environment.
Genetic factors appear to be involved. Compulsive eating behavior, including wool sucking/pica occurs most often in oriental breeds. Compulsive overeating may occur in any breed, resulting in 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 the cat matures, the sucking may evolve to become a form of pica (compulsive eating behavior in which the cat's appetitive attentions broaden to include a range of non-food items, typically plastic shower curtains, shoelaces and running gear). Besides potential dangers of poisoning, such aberrant ingestive behavior can lead to intestinal obstruction.
Certain breeds are more prone to exhibit wool sucking. Siamese cats seem particularly susceptible, accounting for approximately 50 percent of those affected. It is hypothesized that the higher prevalence of wool sucking in Siamese cats and other oriental breeds may be because these breeds have a naturally longer weaning period than other breeds. Since breeders wean most cats at around 6 to 7 weeks of age, it is possible that breed-specific late weaning requirements are frustrated, leading to abnormal non-nutritive suckling behavior in the form of wool sucking.
Feeding compulsions do not necessarily entail redirection of feeding behaviors onto inappropriate non-food items. Some cats massively overeat cat food and become obese. In such cases, where the cat's nutritional needs are more than satisfied, compulsive overeating may be a result of stress or anxiety resulting from environmental factors, e.g. boredom. See your veterinarian to rule out medical causes for pica and overeating. Medical causes could include anemia, diabetes, and brain tumors.
Wool sucking: Change the diet to a high fiber dry food with ad lib feeding.
Compulsive overeating: Switch to twice daily feeding of high fiber ration. Monitor weight loss weekly and prevent precipitous weight reduction in obese cats by adjusting the amount fed to prevent the development of hepatic lipidosis.
Enrich the cat's environment and provide opportunities to perform species-typical behaviors, e.g. arrange for an assortment of moving toys to stimulate play predatory activities.
Here are a few specific ideas to enrich your cat's life.
- Wiggling a wand with feathers on one end, tempting the cat to pounce on it and chase it.
- Pulling a cheese treat or crumpled paper ball attached to a piece of string across the floor
- Burying dry food treats in nooks and crannies to get your cat to hunt for them
- Freezing bits of raw fish into an ice cube for your cats to lick and play with
- Food puzzles, such as a ball or cube that releases dry food when moved around by the cat
- Showing videos of birds fluttering in trees, mice running in wheels, etc. (with sound effects)
- Place a bird feeder outside the window or provide a secure-lidded fish tank for visual stimulation
- Affix feathered mobiles
- Leave around small furry toys, such as toy mice, etc.
- Supply various catnip toys
Your veterinarian may recommend anti-obsessional medication. Anti-obsessional drugs, like clomipramine and fluoxetine, are the most effective treatments. They must be prescribed and administered under the 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 (average \~60 to 70 percent improvement). Some cats are almost completely cured. 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 (anticholinergic effect). If these effects are seen, the dose should be decreased or interrupted, but talk with your veterinarian first before altering the dosage.
Fluoxetine is an antiobsessional antidepressant that can be used to treat compulsive behaviors. The latent period is normally two to four weeks. If effective, 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 at the conclusion of 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.
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**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