Compulsive behaviours

Compulsive behaviours, such as wool-sucking, stem from natural instincts that become an irresistible, repetitive urge. Other compulsive behaviours also stem from normal behaviours that become over-expressed or expressed in the wrong context, such as grooming, eating, and sexual behaviours. If you find feline behaviour interesting, then don’t miss the book ‘Think Like a Cat’.

It is important to point out that there are no rules with compulsive behaviours, no quick fixes, and no one solution that works for every cat. Any behavioural modification should be done following advice from your veterinarian, and if necessary a qualified feline behaviourist – it is all too easy to do the wrong thing and make matters worse! Some compulsive behaviours can actually be due to medical conditions such as allergies and bladder problems. That said, once medical problems are ruled out, in general compulsive behaviours occur in sensitive cats that are under stress or are frustrated. Other behaviours include ‘displacement behaviours’ – when a cat wants to do something but can’t, they can instead perform a ‘displacement behaviour’, which can be completely unrelated to what they want to do – for instance, sucking on a blanket because he/she can’t catch the birds on the other side of the glass.

What causes wool-sucking and other compulsive behaviours?

Medical conditions – Consult your vet!

Genetics – it is possible that, because Siamese cats are over-represented in wool-sucking cats, there is a genetic component to this behaviour

Age – Wool-sucking in particular is more common in young cats, as it seems to stem from suckling nursing behaviour. In some cases weaning may have been too early or abrupt, or the kitten made to leave its mother and littermates too early (6 weeks is too early – 8 weeks is a minimum)

Stress and anxiety – (like us chewing our nails when we’re stressed!) – A new cat, baby, house, neighbourhood bully, absence of a family member, poor choice of food/water/litter tray location…a seemingly unimportant aspect of cat’s life could be vital!

Frustration – Indoor cats are more likely to show these behaviours, as they are less able to control their environment and their interaction with other cats in the household. They can also be more likely to become over-attached to their human-friends. Lack of exercise and mental stimulation can also contribute

Environment – Lack of environmental stimulation and poor provision of enrichment, for instance lack of provision for climbing, hiding, play, scratching

Diet – Deficiency of fibre or nutritional deficiency (e.g. home-cooked diet)

Wool-sucking in cats is a behaviour that is probably more common than you think. Cats mostly such on soft fabrics such as wool, blankets, towels, but the behaviour can also include more unusual things such as shoelaces, ear lobes, other cats, hair, carpets, and other bizarre objects! It can become a serious problem if cats start to swallow parts of the fabric, as it can lead to obstruction of the intestine and the need for surgery. This video shows a Siamese wool-sucking (actually tail-sucking!) – a breed that seems particularly prone to this behaviour (and other oriental cats):

What can you do to help your cat with compulsive behaviour?

Get a vet check to rule out medical problems, and if necessary to get a referral to a qualified feline behaviourist, and medication if this is indicated. Medication alone is rarely suitable – you will still need to consider the cause of your cat’s behaviour and make appropriate modifications. Sorry, no easy fix!

Nothing? Some kittens will grow out of this behaviour naturally, although it can recur during times of stress or frustration.

DO NOT punish your cat! Not only is this cruel because your cat won’t understand it, but it can make matters worse by increasing your cat’s stress levels and confusion, which may be a factor in the behaviour in the first place

Remove or reduce access to wool (or whatever your cat sucks on!), or if the object cannot be removed you may apply taste deterents such as Grannick’s Bitter Apple Spray.

Replace the item with toys, in the location where wool-sucking normally occurs. You may add catnip to encourage play. Some toys are designed for chewing.

Chewing opportunities should be provided to those cats who seem keen to chew things or still seek – such as cat chew sticks, grass, green beans, in some cases even raw chicken wings. Always supervise cats when given items to chew!

Feeding enrichment (click the link for more information)

Environmental enrichment (clink the link for more information)

Remove stress factors as much as possible – for instance, prevent neighbourhood bullies entering your garden or house with cat fencing (we do NOT recommend shock-collars, they are cruel!) or a microchip cat door.

It’s only fair that we warn you – some compulsive behaviours can only be managed and kept at bay rather than fully cured. Life is full of challenges and chances, for your cat as well as you, and sometimes compulsive behaviours can resurface during these times. Don’t be disheartened, just go back to trying to think like your cat! Good luck and do let us know if you found this article helpful or otherwise.

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