Thursday, October 1, 2020

10 Reasons Cats Like to Lick and Chew Plastic Bags

Just what is it about cats and their desire to lick and chew plastic? Animal behaviorists and veterinarians hypothesize, cat writers and bloggers write and teach, and owners just shake their heads in frustration at the reasons behind this behavior. No one is exactly sure why cats have an affinity to plastic bags, but here some reasons given by experts in the field of feline behavior.

Silver shaded Persian, Brulee, chewing on a plastic bag

I never had problems with my previous cats being attracted to plastic. However, my two current Persian Cats tend to be obsessed with plastic, to the point of chewing off pieces and having them lodged in their throats. Nicholas Dodman, a veterinary behaviorist at Tufts University, says that licking bags is a "texture-specific eating disorder," meaning that cats just like the texture of the plastic on their tongues. Dodman said this behavior isn't dangerous unless the cat is ingesting plastic which can lead to intestinal blockages.

Possible Reasons for Licking Behavior

There are ten reasons given by experts on why cats may be attracted enough to plastic to lick and chew on those bags you bring home.

Animal Fat. Some grocery bags contain tallow, which is an animal byproduct that is used to allow bags to separate easily during and post-production. Fish oils or fish scales are also used to keep plastic from sticking together. Cats may lick plastic that contains this because they are trying to get to the taste that corresponds to the scent.

Cornstarch. If you choose to use biodegradable bags instead of plastic, they may contain cornstarch. Even though cats don't taste sweetness, there is something in cornstarch that appealing to their senses.

Chemicals. Many plastics, like commercial shopping bags, contain chemicals often referred to as "slip agents," which are derived from the stearic acid in animal fat. Stearates are derived from saturated fatty acid found in oils, vegetables, and animals. The taste of stearates can be pleasing to cats. 

Odors from Food. Plastic bags from supermarkets or sandwich bags are soft and porous and can trap food smells. A cat's sense of smell is 14x greater than a human. If there is the slightest smell of something in a bag that they consider edible, they will investigate.

Pheromones. Some plastics may contain chemicals that mimic pheromones. Pheromones are chemicals that are produced and released into the environment by and animal that affects the behavior or physiology of others in its species. When cats lick plastic, it could cause a flehmen response, which is a behavior cats use to investigate a smell. 

Texture on Tongue. Some cats like the way plastic feels on their tongues. Plastic has a smooth, cool surface that feels good when cats lick it. 

Medical Issues. Cats may lick or chew on plastic if they have dental disease, mouth pain, or gastrointestinal issues. There may be something missing in your cat's diet that causes her to be attracted to plastic. This is a major reason it's important to take your cat to the veterinarian for wellness checkups each year.

Mental Health. Cats may suffer from Pica, which is a condition where your cat wants to eat things that aren't technically edible. Cats may also suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder if she is licking frequently, especially during specific situations. Licking or chewing plastic may be your cat's way to coping with something that is bothering her. 

Boredom. Cats need a stimulating environment to help meet their natural need of hunting. If you are not playing with your cat on a regular basis or providing appropriate toys, your cat may act out by licking or chewing on plastic bags.

Enticing Sound. When your cat licks or chews on plastic bags, they can make a crinkly sound that resembles critters scurrying around in the leaves or through the grass and this enticing sound can activate your cat's prey drive.

Dangers of Licking and Chewing Plastic

Piece of plastic on table that was swallowed by Brulee
Piece of plastic Brulee swallowed

Licking plastic may seem innocent, but it can be dangerous if your cat is allowed to do this behavior. Plastic has a smooth and cool surface which is attractive to cats, but a cat has a tongue that is covered in little spines, called papillae, that look like tiny hooks. The spines all point in the same direction towards the back of the throat. If a cat licks a piece of plastic and bites off a piece, the plastic can get caught in the throat which could cause choking.  If the plastic is swallowed, there could be an obstruction in the GI tract which may require surgery. Some plastic is hard and if chewed could cause injury to the gums or other soft areas of the mouth. Some cats are so attracted to plastic bags that they crawl inside and could end up getting wrapped up which may result in suffocation.

Personal Experience

Brulee. The piece of plastic in the photo above is of a piece of plastic my Persian cat, Brulee began licking and swallowed one morning about 2:00 am. The plastic is approximately 7 inches long and is attached to a 2 x 2 square inch piece of cardboard. I heard my cat scratching as I was going to sleep and assumed she was scratching in the litter box. It kept going for a long time, so I turned on my light to see what Brulee was doing and saw a piece of cardboard hanging out of her mouth. As I began pulling on it, this long piece of plastic came out of her throat. Had the piece of cardboard not been attached, Brulee could have choked. I took the plastic to our vet and he x-rayed Brulee and said she was extremely lucky. He said it's a good thing I was still awake when this happened or there could have resulted in a fatal consequence.

Truffle. One night Truffle was gagging and I assumed she was getting ready to throw up a hairball. She kept gagging and I opened her mouth to see if I could see anything and I couldn't. It was obvious she was beginning to be in distress. As I was reaching for the telephone to call the emergency hospital, Truffle gagged one more time and something came out of her mouth that was large and black. Upon closer examination, I discovered it was the corner of a plastic envelope some clothes came in that Truffle had chewed off and it was lodged in her throat. This is another time I was thankful I was home when one of my cats found plastic to chew on.

piece of plastic that was caught in Truffle's throat beside a quarter
Piece of Plastic Caught in Truffle's throat


Prevention 

Proper Storage. The best way to avoid your cat licking and chewing plastic is to keep it out of reach! Store plastic bags in a sealed container or closet. If you bring in an envelope from the mailbox, immediately place it in a location where your cat doesn't have access until you can properly dispose of it. 

Alternate Bags. Request paper bags or use cloth bags when grocery shopping.

Prevent Boredom. Make sure you spend more time playing and interacting with your cat to help prevent boredom. Provide toys with different textures, sounds, tastes, and smells for variety. 

Communicate Concern. Let people know who come into your home about your concerns with your cats and plastic. Make sure to leave a special note for your pet sitter to remind them to put all plastic bags and envelopes out of reach.

Disposal. Get rid of bags as soon as you are finished with them. Place them in a sealed container or trashcan with a secure lid. 

Quality Food. Ensure you are feeding quality food to your cat. Check to see if your food is approved by the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) to ensure your cat is getting all the protein and nutrients she needs for health.

Safe Alternatives for Chewing. If your cat likes to chew, consider providing kitty greens (grass). If your cat is obsessive about chewing, you may want to talk to your veterinarian about cat-safe dental chews.

Silver shaded Persian cats, Truffle and Brulee on foot rest
Truffle and Brulee say "Lick fur, not plastic!"


Licking is a natural part of the everyday life of a cat. Cats are part of the family and you should ensure your home is a safe environment. An perceived innocent act of licking plastic could turn deadly. Make sure you keep plastic out of reach!


References

Dodman, Nicholas. July 11, 2017. Pets on the Couch: Neurotic Dogs, Compulsive Cats, Anxious Birds, and the New Science of Animal Psychiatry. Simon and Schuster.

 

Johnson-Bennett, Pam. Why Does My Cat Chew or Lick Plastic Bags? Cat Behavior Associates. https://catbehaviorassociates.com/why-does-my-cat-chew-or-lick-plastic-bags/

 

Kelley, JaneA. March 19, 2014. 7 Reasons Cats Love to Lick Plastic. Catster. https://www.catster.com/lifestyle/cat-health-behavior-why-do-cats-lick-plastic-bags

 

Krisher, Karin. December 19, 2012. Why Does My Cat Lick Plastic Bags? VetriSCIENCE. 

https://www.vetriscience.com/blog/2012/12/why-does-my-cat-lick-plastic-bags/

 

Langley, Liz. October 22, 2016. Why Cats Lick Plastic, and Other Odd Behaviors Explained. National Geographic.

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2016/10/animals-cats-behavior-pets/

 

Primovic, Dr. Debra, DVM. November 14, 2019. Why Cats Are Attracted to Plastic. Pet Place. https://www.petplace.com/article/cats/diseases-conditions-of-cats/why-is-my-cat-licking-plastic/

 


19 comments:

  1. Although I don't seem to care about plastic (I chew on other forbidden things - don't tell!), my human is careful about making sure all plastic is out of kitty reach. Sparkle did chew sometimes, and once got a piece stuck on the roof of her mouth that she couldn't get out, no matter how many somersaults she did! It was scary.

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  2. Oh yes, Angel was a plastic bag fanatic, if she was allowed near one!
    Am amazed at all the different things that could be in the bags composition, that make them so attractive to cats!
    Thanks for the info.

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  3. I'm obsessed with packing tape. Any time a box comes in the house our mom has to make sure there is no tape lying around. I had to go to the vet once because I threw up a piece of tape.

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  4. The Mom and Dad gotta keep those things put away too, we'd all start to get after them.

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  5. Wally liked to chew on plastic, especially the plastic sealing tape on boxes. The mom had to keep all boxes away from him.

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  6. Great post. I had no idea there were so many things in plastic bags.

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  7. This post really resonated with me because I can remember a few times when I would catch my cat Dusty gnawing on plastic. I was definitely on high alert when opening mail packages or wrapping gifts because I knew she loved chewing on ribbons and wrapping material. You are so right about taking preventative measures. The best thing you can do is keep that stuff out of reach or out of the house and save yourself and your pet from harm.

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  8. Such a coincidence- my friend just the other day was telling me his cat is obsessed with grocery bags! I never knew this was a thing. He will occasionally give her a few minutes of monitored play he said, but then the bags are put away safely or recycled. I will pass your post along to him - such great info to consider!

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  9. I worry about plastic bags with Layla also as I am afraid she will chew on one and choke, they are dangerous and need to be kept away from all pets

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  10. Ours don't chew plastic but we do not leave small plastic elements where they can be discovered and played with.

    Our Little 'Un was terrified of plastic bags all her life though.

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  11. I totally like to chew on plastic, but Mom frowns upon it. She always leaves a note with the Petsitter telling him not to leave any plastic wrappers, bags or packaging out where I could find them.

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  12. Oh, wow, most of this is news to me; particularly some of the lesser known stuff such as the pheromone-like attraction. I can see the sound being enticing, though--cat ASMR :-)

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  13. Wow, I never knew that plastic could be so enticing to cats. I worry about my dogs suffocating in a plastic bag, so I always try to make sure that they are not in their reach. We had stopped using them in general, but with COVID, many of the stores are using them again.

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  14. I had no idea this was a thing! All I thought plastic grocery bags were good for is picking up Bella's poop. No clue they might be delicious! Good job detailing the dangers involved.

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  15. Pippen has what my vet refers to as 'compulsive licking disorder'. She licks EVERYTHING all the time - bags, boxes, walls, furniture, anything. Regardless of where she is, she finds something to lick. In fact, as I'm writing this, she is licking the side of a plastic trash bin that lives in my office. It's used for nothing but paper and used up pens, so it's definitely not a food-related reason like scent lol We've had to become highly aware of what is accessible to her in every room all the time, just in case.

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  16. Wow,I had no idea cats liked to chew on plastic blags! Thank goodness Truffle was okay. I'm Pinning to share this important info.

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  17. I (Laz) ate a piece of paper tape and horked it up recenty. But we dont get at plastic bags. TBT keeps them way up in the pantry with the door closed.

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  18. Your stories are so scary! Ellie has a thing for chewing packing tape, cardboard, paper and plastic. Even so, I'm not particularly careful about what she has access to. I think to myself that she hasn't had a close call ... but the truth is the first time can certainly be the last so I need to be more mindful of what I leave laying around.

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  19. Oh My this is ME! I have a real hankering to eat one particular kind of plastic that is the bags that Dad gets his laundry in. No other just that. Dad kind of forgot as he has not used them for anything but the other week thought he would put one in the used litter box. Dont you know the next day he found a hairball with a big bit of plastic on it. He was wondering why I was not hungry the night before but I am finicky so he thought nothing of it. Sure enough on investigation there was a missing part of the bag. These go right out in the trash now and forever. Thanks for a great post

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