Pet Care

Compulsive Behavior in Cats

Cat licking his paw

The word “compulsive” describes the repetitive, irresistible urge to perform a behavior. Most compulsive behaviors are normal activities, such as eating, grooming, moving around or sexual behaviors, but they occur in the wrong contexts and to such an extent that they interfere with normal functioning. The most common compulsive behaviors in cats are wool sucking or fabric eating (a form of pica) and excessive licking, hair chewing or hair pulling (called psychogenic alopecia). When performed compulsively, these behaviors can be harmful to a cat. Cats who eat fabric can suffer intestinal obstruction, and cats who over-groom can develop skin wounds. Sometimes a cat becomes so compelled to engage in a compulsive behavior that it interferes with her ability to lead a normal life and impairs her relationship with her pet parent.

What Causes Compulsive Disorders?

Compulsive behaviors often develop when a sensitive cat is frustrated or stressed. Initially, the cat performs a displacement behavior. She wants to do one thing but she can’t, so she gets frustrated and does something else. For example, when a cat sees another cat outside the window, she might want to attack—but she can’t get out, so she performs a seemingly irrelevant behavior instead, like licking herself. If stressful situations like this happen repeatedly, the cat may continue to engage in the displacement behavior. At first, she’ll do it only in stressful situations, but she may eventually do it even when there’s nothing frustrating going on. At this stage, the behavior has become repetitive and compulsive.

While it’s not been confirmed, some experts believe that kittens who were weaned too early might be susceptible to developing compulsive disorder later in life.

Facts About Compulsive Disorders in Cats

  • Cats are usually less than two years of age when they develop compulsive disorders. Kittens may be as young as three to four months old when they start wool sucking, for example.
  • Although any cat can develop a compulsive disorder, Oriental breeds, such as the Siamese, are particularly prone to developing them. It’s likely that the breeding practices necessary to create and maintain these purebred cats also concentrate genes associated with compulsive disorders.
  • Female cats are more commonly affected with psychogenic alopecia. There is no known sex bias for other compulsive disorders.
  • Compulsive disorders occur most often in cats who live exclusively indoors, presumably because indoor cats get less mental stimulation and physical exercise. Indoor cats are also more likely to face stressful situations, like fighting with other cats in the home.
  • Significant disruptions in a cat’s life, like moving to a new house, home remodeling, or the addition of a new pet or family member to the household, can cause stress and trigger the development of compulsive behavior.

Check with Your Veterinarian First

Don’t assume that your cat has a compulsive disorder just because she’s licking herself or eating non-food items. Some medical conditions can cause these behaviors, so it’s crucial to have your cat thoroughly examined by her veterinarian before doing anything else. A cat who licks herself excessively might be suffering from allergies or fungal infections, or she could be experiencing pain in the area she licks. A cat who eats non-food items, such as fabrics, could be suffering from a nutritional deficiency. If you have more than one cat and they all share a food bowl, it’s also possible that your cat simply isn’t getting enough to eat.

It’s important to understand that behaviors originally caused by medical problems can become compulsive. Your cat might continue performing a behavior, even after you’ve resolved its medical cause.

Identifying the Cause

Once you’ve ruled out medical issues, the next step is to figure out what’s causing your cat to feel stressed and, if possible, get rid of it. Some of the most common factors that contribute to the development of compulsive disorders include the following:

  • Separation anxiety, particularly if someone in the family is absent for a lengthy period of time, or if a person or pet in the family has died or left the home
  • A new person or pet in the household
  • A move to a new home
  • Restricted access to the outdoors
  • Inadequate social or environmental stimulation due to an exclusively indoor life
  • The presence of cats outside the windows of the home
  • Loud or high-pitched noises
  • Attention seeking

Obviously, some of these factors can’t be eliminated or avoided. However, if you can’t remove the source of your cat’s stress, there are still ways to help her cope.

Helping Your Compulsive Cat

If your cat reacts to a specific sight or sound, you can expose her to the thing that upsets her at such low levels that she remains calm. At the same time, you’ll be associating the thing with something your cat enjoys, like treats or play. For instance, if she gets stressed when you play the piano, start by teaching her that she gets tasty salmon every time you play a very quiet tune. As she demonstrates that she’s comfortable with this, take several weeks to gradually expose her to louder music. Each music session should be accompanied by her favorite foods. For more information about this kind of procedure, please see our article, Desensitization and Counterconditioning.

Cats who are stressed by the presence of other cats outside the home can be discouraged from watching out windows. Remove your cat’s favorite resting spots by windows, and make other places more appealing. If necessary, cover the windows with curtains, blinds or even an opaque material like cardboard. Please see our article, Keeping Cats Out of Your Yard, to learn about ways to deter outside cats from coming around. 

If your cat lives exclusively indoors, enrich her environment so that she has plenty of things to do. Make sure you have structures for climbing and perching, bird feeders, fish tanks or Kitty TV for watching, and interesting toys for playing. Spend 10 to 15 minutes at least once a day playing interactive games with your cat. Some cats even enjoy a daily walk outdoors on a harness and leash. (Please see our article, Enriching Your Cat’s Life.

Some cats engage in compulsive behaviors because they get attention from their pet parents. It’s important that you don’t unintentionally reward your cat with attention when she’s engaging in a compulsive behavior. If you do, she might learn that eating fabric, for example, makes you follow her around everywhere, or that licking herself makes you come over and stroke her. It’s best to interrupt your cat without interacting with her. Simply remove the item she’s chewing, or clap your hands to distract her from licking.

If your cat is having a hard time adjusting to a dramatic change in her life, such as a move or the loss of a family member, medication might help her. Anti-anxiety medications, such as fluoxetine (Prozac®) or clomipramine (Clomicalm®), are often helpful in treating compulsive disorders. Please see Behavioral Medications for Cats for more information and Finding Professional Help for a referral to a veterinary behaviorist.

Specific Tips for Fabric Eating and Wool Sucking

  1. Keep desirable items out of reach, and prevent your cat from going into rooms where she can access bedspreads or curtains. If she sucks or chews specific items, spray them with a deterrent to make them taste bad. Please see our article, Using Taste Deterrents, for information about products designed for cats.
  2. If your cat sucks or chews but doesn’t ingest fabric, provide furry mice and soft toys as acceptable alternatives. If your cat eats fabric, provide toys made of rubber or plastic. Scatter the toys in areas where your cat would normally go to look for fabric items.
  3. Some cats will chew on fresh catnip and cat grass as safe alternatives to fabric. A few even like to eat lettuce and green beans.
  4. Some cats enjoy chewing pieces of thin rawhide lightly coated with fish oil or cheese spread. Others prefer to chew on raw chicken wings. Make sure they’re raw—cooked bones can splinter and choke or injure your cat. Only give your cat rawhide or chicken wings when you’re able to closely supervise her.
  5. Use your cat’s feeding times as enrichment opportunities. Hide small dishes of her food around the house so she has to hunt for them. You can also see if she’ll eat from a food puzzle toy. You can use toys made for small dogs, such as the KONG® or the Tricky Treat™ Ball. Alternatively, you can make a toy by punching holes in an empty toilet paper roll. Make the holes large enough for the pieces of kibble to fit through. Cover one end of the roll with tape, dump some kibble or other semi-hard treats inside, and then cover the other end, too. Set the toy down in front of your cat and roll it so that she sees the food fall out of the holes.
  6. Speak with your cat’s veterinarian about feeding her a high-fiber, low-calorie diet. She’ll be able to eat more of this kind of food, which will keep her occupied for longer periods of time.

Can a Compulsive Cat Be Cured?

It’s often not possible to completely cure compulsive disorders in cats. However, behavior modification, drug therapy and changes to your cat’s environment can be effective in reducing the frequency and intensity of her compulsive behavior, making it more tolerable for you and for her. It may help you to keep a daily diary of your cat’s behavior so that you can see whether your efforts are helping. If they are, seeing it on paper will encourage you to continue with the treatment program.

What NOT to Do

  • Do not punish your cat for engaging in compulsive behavior. Punishing her will increase her stress, and she’ll probably do even more compulsive licking, sucking or chewing as a result.
  • It’s usually not helpful to physically prevent your cat from engaging in compulsive behavior. For example, making her wear an Elizabethan collar probably won’t work. While restraint can be helpful in the short term to keep your cat from harming herself, it’s important to find a long-term solution to address the source of the underlying anxiety.