Eating things they shouldn’t in cats

Cats are much less likely to eat things they shouldn’t than dogs. They’re usually more particular about what they eat. The most common problems will be household plants and chicken bones. Most of the time the worst consequence will be an upset tummy. But eating things they shouldn’t can also cause intestinal damage and life-threatening illness.

Vets refer to cats eating things they shouldn’t as dietary indiscretion. It may be grabbing something tasty out of an overflowing litter bin. Or pruning your favourite houseplant, one chewed leaf at a time. The danger arises when whatever they’ve eaten is poisonous, sharp or irritant. Talk to a vet as soon as possible if you think your cat has eaten something they shouldn’t. An immediate phone call can prevent serious problems further down the line.


What to do

What to do if your cat eats something they shouldn’t

A lot will depend on what it is that they’ve eaten:

  • Remove anything that’s left to prevent them from eating any more
  • Find out what they’ve eaten and how much if possible
  • Call a vet immediately if it’s poisonous or if it’s a non-food item that could cause a blockage
  • And talk to a vet immediately if you’re not sure



Why do cats eat things they shouldn’t?

For some cats, eating things they shouldn’t is a one-off, some tempting meaty morsel left in reach. For others, grazing houseplants is a daily routine. It is normal for cats to eat grasses, if within reason.

Why cats eat things they shouldn’t

  • Hunger: underfed cats or cats on the wrong diet for their age and lifestyle.
  • Dietary deficiencies: if something is missing from your cat’s diet, they may unconsciously try to find it from other sources. Vets call this pica.
  • Curiosity or overenthusiastic play: wool, rubber bands, paper, thread.
  • Certain illnesses: cats with an overactive thyroid gland, liver disease or diabetes.
  • Unknowingly: cats who hunt may unwittingly eat something poisonous in their prey, especially rat and mouse bait chemicals.
  • Keeping clean: cats will groom themselves by licking their coats. Even if there is something harmful on them, like lily pollen or engine oil.
  • Parasites: heavy burdens of internal worms steal your cat’s nutrition and make them hungrier.
  • Boredom or stress


When to worry

When to worry if your cat has eaten something they shouldn’t

Call a vet immediately if your cat has eaten:

  • Something toxic or harmful to cats: chemicals, rat bait, some human foods and plants
  • Something that can’t be digested: string, wool, fabric.
  • Something that can burn the insides: batteries, caustic substances (bleach, spirit).
  • Sharp items that could pierce the gullet or intestine: cooked bones (chicken), sewing needles (and thread)
  • Things that can cause the intestine to concertina up and lead to serious damage: string, rubber bands, wool or ribbons.

Joii can help with:

  • Treating upset tummies: diarrhoea and vomiting
  • Advising what items are harmful
  • Safe toys and treats for cats
  • Dietary advice for weight control and hunger management
  • Identifying and managing other illnesses

The Animal Poison Line is also available 24/7 for pet owners. They have expertise in the harmful effects of plants, foodstuffs or chemicals. There is a charge for this service.



Tips to prevent cats from eating things they shouldn’t

It isn’t always easy to prevent your determined feline friend from supplementing their diet with unsuitable treasures outside the house.

But there are some measures which may reduce the risk of harm:

  • Avoid leaving food unattended on tables or anywhere in your cat’s reach.
  • Use a diet that leaves your cat feeling fuller between meals. Especially if they’re on a diet and/or always looking for food. Hills Prescription Diet metabolic is ideal for cats who need to lose or control weight, without being hungry all the time.
  • Keep plants and flowers which may be harmful out of the house. If you’re not sure a plant is safe, keep it out!
  • Provide safe cat grass for your cat to eat, especially if they don’t go outside. Eating this helps their digestion.
  • Provide stimulation and lots of cuddles for your cat to reduce boredom or stress.



Warning signs that your cat has eaten something they shouldn’t

  • Upset tummy: vomiting and diarrhoea
  • Drooling
  • Gagging or retching if something is stuck in their throat or gullet
  • Signs of intestinal blockage: bringing up undigested or partially digested food after eating
  • Abdominal (tummy) pain: hunched, quiet, lying in odd positions
  • Trouble passing poo: when something gets stuck in the large bowel or rectum (bones)
  • Seizures


Home treatment

Home care when your cat’s eaten something they shouldn’t

If your cat has eaten anything that may be harmful or likely to cause a blockage, call a vet immediately.

The result of dietary indiscretion is usually an upset tummy.

For mild upsets:

  • Give the tummy a rest, but ensure your cat continues to drink to prevent dehydration.
  • Offer 24-48 hours of light frequent feeds. Something like chicken or white fish is ideal.
  • Call a vet if vomiting persists or if your cat seems duller or quieter than normal.


Vet treatment

Vet treatment when cats eat things they shouldn’t

Vet treatment when your cat eats something they shouldn’t depends on what they’ve eaten and how recently they ate it.

If it’s just happened, treatment may include:

  • An injection to empty their tummy, called inducing emesis £-££
  • A specific antidote to a poison, if there is one
  • Gastric (tummy) protectants
  • Charcoal: absorbs toxins from the intestine before they cross into the bloodstream.

Your vet will not make your cat sick if:

  • Your cat has eaten something sharp or caustic: as it’s likely to cause as much harm coming up again.
  • Toxic effects have already begun and include problems with balance, weakness, seizures or vomiting.
  • It has been more than 1-3 hours since your cat ate the item or substance.

Vet treatment for poisoning without a specific antidote or for severe tummy upsets:

  • Supportive care: hospital admission for monitoring, fluids, special feeding.
  • Treatment for symptoms: anti-sickness medicine, seizure control, liver and intestinal protectants.  £££

Vet treatment for foreign bodies in the stomach:

Recently eaten items either not removed by emesis or outside the 2-3 hour timeframe.

  • Removing the object by endoscopy: the vet uses a special camera to look into your cat’s tummy. The camera is fitted with a grasping tool that can hold the foreign object and remove it. £££

Foreign bodies too big to remove by endoscopy or too far down the intestine.

  • An operation to remove the foreign body. The vet will open up your cat’s tummy to examine the intestine and find the blockage. The vet opens the intestine and removes the blockage.  The vet will also try to repair any damage it has caused. Finally, the intestine and tummy are stitched together again. ££££-£££££

Removing a blockage from the tummy is a major operation and it carries risks.



Are some cats more likely to eat things they shouldn’t?

Any cat might eat something that upsets their tummy, but there will be some groups more at risk than others:

  • Young cats: kittens like to play and explore the world through their mouths
  • Cats who roam outdoors and cats who hunt
  • Cats with other illnesses: hyperthyroidism, diabetes


Other rare causes of cats eating things they shouldn’t

  • Brain disorders: cancers, partial seizures
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