Wool sucking

Wool sucking is a compulsive, misdirected form of nursing behavior. But will it harm your cat?

In nature, the drive to nurse must be strong or a smaller kitten might give up in the often uneven struggle for mom's milk. Kittens nurse fairly actively for the first seven weeks of their lives, with mom rebuffing them at the latter end of the period in order to "teach" them to fend for themselves. Comfort nursing, running to mom for a couple of quick sucks (even when the milk bar is dry), is normal kitten behavior, even up to 6 months of age. As the kitten grows older and shifts its preference to solid food, the drive to nurse fades, or at least transmutes. But what if this natural progression is interrupted by abrupt early weaning while a kitten's nursing drive is still powerful and still in gear?

The answer is that the kitten displaces its nursing onto non-nutritional, maternal look-alike substrates, or more specifically, "feel alikes." They may begin sucking on themselves, their littermates, or certain wooly materials, especially wool itself (also acrylic…they're not proud). Human infants show similar behavior when they suck their thumbs or a pacifier. A kitten without mom's nipple to nurse on is like a human baby without mom, or a bottle, or a pacifier.

At an early stage of wool sucking, kittens are not necessarily in serious trouble – but things may progress. The younger a kitten is when weaned, the stronger the drive to nurse will be, and the more persistent non-nutritional sucking may become. Also, some kittens seem to have a stronger drive to nurse than others and are more likely to "wool suck" following abrupt weaning – even at a relatively "normal" age. In extreme cases (where strong drives are involved), you may be sent scuttling to the vet's office for advice regarding the strange and worrisome behavior – and not without due cause.

As with most other phenomena in behavioral medicine, wool sucking will either fade in time as the kitten gets other interests or it will remain. Even for those kittens whose wool sucking has apparently faded into oblivion, a vague recollection of this past behavior will persist throughout life. In moments of stress or conflict in later life, the behavior may resurface as a comfort behavior and, in some cases, may assume compulsive proportions. In other cats, wool sucking doesn't resurface either because serious conflict does not arise. Occasional wool sucking may persist throughout the lives of some mildly affected cats.

If your cat exhibits wool sucking, it may not be a problem – as long as the behavior remains at the "wool sucking only" stage of development. But think what happens to the nursing drive during the course of normal development – it transmutes to the eating of solid food. Your "wool sucker" may, gradually or rather suddenly, progress to ingesting the non-nutritional materials. You may start to find big holes in your sweaters or blankets and your cat's preference may broaden to include certain other materials, like shoelaces, running/exercising gear, and plastic (often in the form of shower curtains). Living with a wool sucker of this degree is like living with a 10-pound moth. And keep in mind that because the material is actually eaten, this type of wool sucking represents a potentially serious problem for your cat. S/he may suffer intestinal obstruction from the ingested material and surgery and/or death may be the end result.

What Can You Do About Wool sucking?

If wool sucking is mild and does not involve ingestion of inedible material, it may not require treatment. However, once a cat begins to ingest the foreign material, it may be in danger and you will need to consult your veterinarian. He or she may wish to run medical tests to rule out other contributing problems.

Treatment typically involves the following measures:

Removal of sources of stress Eliminate any possible stressors in your cat's life that may promote wool sucking behavior. Typical stressors include: in-fighting between resident cats, unwelcome visitors to your yard, and separation anxiety.

Divert the wool-eating attempts Offer other things for your cat to chew on, such as a sock with a ball in it or a cat toy. You might also provide a constant supply of high fiber cat food so that your cat has a choice – wool or real food. Your cat may just might make the healthy choice.

Drug Therapy Your veterinarian may prescribe medication. Believe it or not, human anti-obsessional drugs, like clomipramine (Clomicalm®), fluoxetine (Prozac®), paroxetine (Paxil®) and sertraline (Zoloft®) are all effective. However, these drugs may take four to six weeks to start working. The peak effects may not be seen for up to three to four months. Specific anti-anxiety medications are also sometimes employed when anti-depressants do not work. The anxiolytic drug buspirone (BuSpar®) is sometimes effective.