Cats have a reputation for turning almost any household object into a toy or bed. They sleep in boxes of nearly any size, chase twist ties across the floor, and thoroughly enjoy shredding rolls of paper towels and toilet paper. Shredding plastic bags seems like fairly normal behavior, but some cats lick or nibble on plastic objects instead. This is a very puzzling habit, especially when cat owners go to great lengths to supply healthy, appetizing food for their furry darlings. Although licking plastic may seem like a random quirk, there are reasons for this behavior.
Some cats may lick, or even eat, plastic because they have an eating disorder called pica that triggers a desire to eat inedible, nonfood objects. Cats with pica may eat cat litter as well. Potential causes of pica include vitamin or mineral deficiencies, medical issues, stress, or a compulsive disorder. Adult cats are more at risk of developing pica if they were weaned and taken from their mothers too early as kittens. Your veterinarian can help identify and treat the underlying cause of pica.
Plastics contain petroleum products and all sorts of chemicals, which may have unique scents. The composition of plastic varies according to the manufacturer and purpose of the object. Cats use smells and pheromones to communicate with each other, and their sense of smell is approximately 14 times sharper than ours. They may sniff and lick plastics to figure out what the strange smells mean. Most cats are just curious, but some kitties may hiss or run away if they notice an upsetting smell.
We store and transport food in plastic bags and packaging. The smell of food may linger on the plastic. A cat's finely-honed sense of smell can detect odors even if the plastic has been empty for days. Unfortunately, some kitties may eat plastic that smells like their favorite foods. Cat owners should discourage this behavior because swallowed plastic can get stuck in the digestive system.
Cats quickly figure out that plastic bags make crinkling noises that sound similar to small animals running through grass or leaves. These noises can trigger a cat's prey drive, which is also their motivation for playing. The cat's actions, such as pouncing, chewing, or licking, produce different sounds, so a plastic bag can provide hours of entertainment. Kitties may end battles by shredding bags with their claws.
Biodegradable and compostable plastics are made with plant products. Manufacturers use corn starch or materials derived from sugar cane or wheat. Cats can smell and taste the difference between regular and biodegradable plastics, and they may enjoy the taste of the plant-based ingredients. Unfortunately, some cats chew and eat the plastic too. Pet owners should discourage this behavior and dispose of biodegradable plastics as quickly as possible.
Manufacturers frequently use gelatin or animal fat in plastic products. Gelatin is a viscous substance extracted from animal parts, including bones, tendons, ligaments, and hooves. Some plastic bags are also coated in a fish oil-based lubricant, so bags don't stick together. People don't notice the residual odors from animal products, but cats do. It's not surprising that cats investigate these odors by licking the plastic.
Many plastic objects have smooth, slippery surfaces that feel cool and pleasant on a cat's rough tongue. Some cats enjoy sleeping or gliding across plastic surfaces. Kitties also crawl into plastic bags and feel the thin, cool material from all sides. They lick and chew bags and other plastics to explore the texture. Pet owners should always supervise playtime with plastic bags. Although a cat's teeth and claws can shred most plastic bags, the cat could still swallow a piece of plastic large enough to block the airway.
Some cats lick or chew plastic because they're bored. This is more likely in homes with only one cat, especially if the cat is alone for long stretches every day. Cats can also lick plastic as a self-soothing measure when they feel stressed or anxious.
Plastics, even biodegradable versions, are indigestible. In a best-case scenario, a piece of plastic travels through the digestive system and exits the body. However, plastic can also get stuck and create a blockage in the digestive tract. A blockage is a serious health issue that can be fatal without treatment. Signs of a blockage include diarrhea, lethargy, vomiting, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, or drooling. Cats experiencing abdominal pain may shy away and guard their bellies or yowl while trying to use the litter box. These symptoms are also associated with many other diseases, so veterinary care is essential for an accurate diagnosis and treatment.
Cat owners have lots of options if they need to stop their pets from licking plastic. Store or dispose of plastic bags immediately after a shopping trip. A switch to paper or cloth bags can eliminate most plastic bags at the source. Make sure cats have plenty of toys, and schedule playtime and other interactions at least twice each day. Give cats more opportunities for environmental stimulation with puzzle feeders, cat trees, wall-mounted bridges, climbing sets, or even a maze of boxes.
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