Cat Behavior Problems: Chewing and Sucking

During exploration and play, kittens (and some adult cats) will chew on a variety of objects. This can lead to damage or destruction of some favorite possessions, and can also be dangerous for your cat.

Why does my cat chew inappropriate items?

Chewing can be perfectly normal. Many objects yield to pressure and while playfully batting things, cats may pick them up and start to chew. However, excessive chewing, licking and sucking on objects and surfaces can be caused by health problems such as pain or gastrointestinal disorders. It is important to test for potential medical reasons for the behavior (see handout “Behavior Counseling: Diagnosing a Behavior Problem - Is It Medical or Behavioral?”).

Some serious behavioral disorders can also trigger excessive chewing. For example, if your cat chews in specific contexts, such as when you are busy or asleep, when you are not home, or when her food dish is empty, she may be expressing frustration or anxiety. If you are concerned that your cat is chewing much more than expected, or if there is a sudden onset of this behavior, consult with your veterinarian. Your cat may need to see a veterinary behaviorist for a full behavioral assessment.

What can I do to stop my cat from chewing?

The best thing to do, when possible, is to prevent your cat from chewing inappropriate items from the beginning. It is important that you provide plenty of opportunities and outlets for play, scratching, climbing, chewing, and exploration (see handout “Kitten Behavior and Training – Play and Investigative Behaviors”).

"The best thing to do, when possible, is to prevent your cat from chewing inappropriate items from the beginning."

When you adopt a new cat or kitten, be sure to directly supervise until you have determined whether there are any particular types of inappropriate chewable objects that attract her attention. When supervision is not possible, confine your new cat to an area that is free from hazards.  

If you notice your new cat chewing something as she explores your home, quietly distract her with an appropriate toy. Then, place extra fun toys, including some food-filled toys, in that location. If the object in question is valuable or dangerous, it is best to put it out of reach, at least for the short term.

If your cat has already established a pattern of chewing your property, you may need to kitten-proof your house, as much as possible, to keep your cat and your valuables safe. It may be necessary to confine your cat when you cannot supervise.

Behavior training for cats that chew objects can involve sessions in which you purposely place the object in reach and sit close by. As soon as your cat takes any interest in the object, even a stare or sniff, lure her away with an irresistible treat or toy. Continue to have sessions until your cat develops a strong interest in the alternative activity you have offered. This should never be done with objects that could be quickly grabbed and swallowed, as your cat is faster than you are! Keep those small items out of reach permanently for your cat’s safety.

What type of objects do cats usually chew?

Strings, thread, electric cords, plastic bags, twist ties, pins, and needles are just a few of the objects that cats may chew or swallow, resulting in intestinal obstructions that may require surgical removal. Another common target for chewing is houseplants. Be sure that your cat cannot access any plants that contain toxins - some plants are so poisonous to cats that even a bite can be lethal.

To train your cat to stay away from plants, it is important that you remove or protect your household plants when you cannot supervise your cat. Cats often find citrus odors and potpourri to be somewhat aversive; you can try placing these scents into the soil or in a dish beside the plant. Another option is to use a tall gate to protect the plant. Offer your cat lettuce or parsley to munch or plant a small kitty herb garden, as many cats are satisfied with safe greens.

Cats that gnaw on objects may be interested in chewing on dog toys or biscuits. Other cats may like dry cat food, especially dental diets and dental treats, as these diets provide oral stimulation, satisfy the need to chew, and promote slower eating.

What can I do if my cat sucks on wool and fabrics?

Any cat of any breed can exhibit wool-sucking, but the behavior is most seen in Burmese, Siamese, and Oriental mixed-breed cats. Some kittens stop sucking on fabric as they mature, but in many cases, without specific treatment, the behavior continues. Cats can become quite ill if they begin to ingest the fabric (see handout “Cat Behavior Problems - Compulsive Disorders in Cats”).

"Discuss the behavior with your veterinarian to ensure there is no medical cause for the behavior."

It is important to discuss the behavior with your veterinarian to ensure there is no medical cause for the behavior. Oral pain, for example, can lead to sucking objects. Some kittens that were weaned early may suckle on inappropriate objects, and they may be satisfied if they are given alternative objects to suck on. Sucking can serve as a comforting displacement behavior, so behavioral illnesses that stem from fear, anxiety, and frustration can also trigger sucking.

It is important to provide your cat with an enriched environment that minimizes stress. Schedule several interactive play sessions, offer many levels for exploring the environment, and rotate toys to keep them interesting. It is possible to teach cats to perform tricks, and social cats respond well to training as a part of their enrichment program.

Provide plenty of opportunities for your cat to forage, manipulating the environment to access food. Food-dispensing toys designed for cats work well, particularly when they are dispersed throughout the home. Feeding dry and high-fiber foods or dental foods and dental treats may also be helpful. In fact, cats that suck and chew may be interested in chew toys or chew treats designed primarily for dogs.

Management is needed to keep your cat safe and to protect your clothing and other fabrics. This may mean putting away target objects when you are not able to supervise or confining your cat in a safe room. When you notice your cat reaching for fabric, distract her with a suitable replacement object.

"When you notice your cat reaching for fabric, distract her with a suitable replacement object."

If your cat is very persistent about sucking wool, try covering some safe chew toys with a small amount of a product containing lanolin (such as hand cream). If your cat is not ingesting the wool, it may also be possible to purposely provide one or two woolen objects that your cat can suck on safely.

When cats are so motivated to suck fabric that the behavior is compulsive and their day-to-day quality of life becomes compromised, treatment with medication may be recommended. The same drugs used for human compulsive disorders can be safe and helpful for cats. If your cat persistently sucks, chews or ingests material, do not delay scheduling a consultation with a veterinary behaviorist.