Wool sucking is a compulsive behavior seen in cats, especially in Siamese and Birman breeds. Cats affected with this medical disorder suck, lick and chew on soft materials including wool and other fabrics. Over time, they often progress to other materials including rubber, nylon, cardboard, paper and plastic. I know of one cat who got into a closet and chewed out the inseam of his owner’s favorite jeans. Another cat suffered electrocution when she went after an electric cord. She received a nasty bruise on the roof of her mouth but survived.
The cause of wool sucking is not completely understood. Dr. Borns-Well performed a case controlled study of 204 Birman and Siamese cats and found that small litter size and early weaning was associated with an increased risk of wool sucking in the Birman breed of cat. In Siamese, the risk of developing wool sucking increased when they developed other medical conditions. Further research by Dr. Nicholas Dodman into the genetics suggests a dominant mode of inheritance for this condition. Another common finding in affected cats is an abnormally intense appetite. These cats are extremely oral, mouthing anything in reach when they are hungry.
Treatment is based on decreasing the stress that causes this compulsive behavior and providing alternative outlets when it occurs. Here’s how I tackle patients with wool sucking:
- Medical examination – The work-up for a cat with wool sucking always starts with a thorough veterinary examination and lab work looking for other medical problems. Cats are good at hiding their illnesses until they become severe. Through blood work and physical examination, I find many of these patients have chronic problems when their family thought they were healthy. The behavior decreases and sometimes stops when the underlying problem is resolved.
- Environmental examination – The next step in the work-up for wool sucking is evaluating the cat’s environment for specific stress inducers as well as behavioral enrichment areas. Cats have a pretty simple routine – hunt, eat, urinate/defecate, groom, rest. A healthy environment will provide specific areas for all of these behaviors to occur. Stress occurs from lack of resources, other housemates that may bully the cat, outdoor cats and the lack of outlets for normal behaviors. Cats view valuable things like resting spots, food and litter boxes as valuable resources. Problems occur when there aren’t enough to go around. Ideally, there should be one litter box for each cat. Place the box in a private area with at least two escape routes to prevent another cat or dog from cornering the cat. The same rule applies for food and water bowls. Use a large dog bowl for water as cats like to drink from large flat surfaces. For resting areas, variety is the key. I like to give the cat a choice between low places (basket in a closet, blanket under a bed, cat tunnel, etc), medium places (chair when pushed under a table, sofa back covered with a blanket, inbox on a desk, etc) and high places (perch on upper window, closet shelf, cat tree, etc). If outdoor cats are a problem, keep the perches far away and cover windows with blinds.
- Normal behavior outlet – Entertainmental areas are important for giving the cat an outlet for their normal behaviors. In the wild, feral cats hunt, stalk and then kill their prey. Behavior enrichment for indoor cats should provide the means for expressing these behaviors. Window perches by a bird feeder, aquariums, cat trees and cat videos appeal to the hunting instincts of cats. Scratching post scattered throughout the house are fun as well. Use posts with vertical as well as horizontal surfaces for scratching. Interactive toys including feather wands, stuffed mice on a string, while balls and wads of paper are great for stalking and exercise. Remember to let the cat catch and kill the toy every few minutes to simulate normal hunting. My cats come running when they hear me get the feather wand out of the closet. I have to put it away between plays times because they will chew it up. I am not a fan of laser pointers because some cats develop frenzied play syndrome because they can never catch and kill the dot.
- Outlets for wool sucking behavior – Even with a good environment, some cats will still exhibit the wool sucking behavior. The key in dealing with this is to redirect the behavior away from the expensive inappropriate items to safe toys. Soft cat toys and stuffed animals work well for this. A small amount of cat nip or lanolin may be rubbed on the toy to help attract the cat. Place the toys in areas where the wool sucking behavior occurs. With time, the cat will learn to seek out their special toys when they feel the need for oral stimulation. Since many of these cats seem to have extreme hunger, break up their meals throughout the day. Put food in puzzle feeders or treat balls and then scatter them throughout the house. Make the cat work to find the food. Encourage the cat to play and then reward them with small bits of food. Because of their food motivation, many of these cats can learn to do all kinds of tricks.
- Severe Cases – In some cats, the compulsive behavior is ingrained and drug therapy is required. For these cats, I also recommend creating a safe room filled with soft toys for mouthing until the compulsive behavior is better controlled.
-Borns-Well, S, et. al., A case-control study of compulsive wool-sucking in Siamese and Birman cats (n=204). J. Vet. Behav. November/December 2015:10(6):543-548.
-Dodman, Nicholas. Recognition, Management and Genetic Findings in Canine and Feline Compulsive Disorders. Tuft’s Canine and Feline Breeding Genetics Conference 2015.