A reader asks: "My cat is a neutered ginger tom, about 13 years old. Over the last few months he has deteriorated; fur has gone horrible, loss of appetite, and vomiting. He has had blood tests for everything and the vet has found nothing. Steroid tablets have stopped the vomiting, but now he has no energy and has started to eat soil, and lick pebbles. Any ideas?"
Cats are well known for their weird and lovable antics -- falling into the laundry bin; madly dashing out of the room; freaking out at the sight of a cucumber.
Eating dirt is definitely one of their more uncanny behaviors -- so what does it mean and why do they do it?
Kittens eat inappropriate things like dirt and plastic because they are exploring the world. But when an adult cat eats dirt or other items that aren't food (such as electrical cords, houseplants, cat litter, shoelaces and paper, it's called Pica, and there's likely an underlying reason for it.
What Causes a Cat to Eat Dirt?
There are several possible causes for pica, including:
1. Dietary deficiency – Adult cats that eat dirt may be suffering from a lack of nutrients and vitamins in their food. Consider switching from a commercial cat food to making your own at home, making sure they're getting a balanced diet. You can also try mixing up their wet or dry food with some human food.
Thus, it's important to work with your vet to get to explore possible medical conditions, as catching a disease earlier rather than later is paramount to successful treatment.
3. Compulsive disorder – This is a less likely cause, especially if the symptom emerges later in life, but it's possible that eating strange items that aren't food indicate a compulsive disorder that's genetic.
When this is the case, it tends to occur more often with particular breeds.
4. Stress – Sometimes when cats get stressed, they act out in odd ways. This can happen if you bring a new pet into the house, or perhaps a new baby. Make sure you're providing you cat with an enriched environment that includes:
- Regular interactive play that simulates their hunting instinct
- Solo toys that you change up regularly to keep things interesting
- A tall scratching post
- A cat tree or high perch
- A screened window for viewing space
5. Boredom – It's possible that boredom is the culprit, and your cat just needs more stimulation from you and its surroundings. Read up on ways to engage, challenge and play with your cat to keep boredom at bay. This one is an easy fix!
6. Idiopathic – There may be no known cause influencing your cat's behavior and it's just his inherent behavior.
How to Stop Cats From Eating Dirt
Make dirt unappetizing: If you can't remove the dirt, put an item with a strong scent next to it to deter them. You can try:
- Citrus candles
- Hot sauce
- Essential oils
- Other items with a strong scent
Provide additional chew toys: Divert your cat's attention with catnip or cat toys to play with to refocus his attention away from the dirt.
Work with a cat behaviorist: If nothing else works, seek out a cat behaviorist who can help modify the behavior.