Never doubt a cat’s ability to turn any household object into their new favorite toy — a shoestring, Q-tip, grocery bag, or even a twist tie from the loaf of bread, to name a few. But some cats also have an unusual knack for turning things like plastic into a makeshift snack worth licking. Now, you’re desperate for answers to one burning question: Why do cats lick plastic?
Cats lick plastic because of a condition called “pica,” where a cat may lick or eat non-food items. Other reasons cats lick plastic include the lingering scents of food, tasty gelatin or cornstarch added to the plastic, the satisfying crinkling sounds, or the smooth texture on a cat’s rough tongue.
Many cat owners chalk up this bizarre behavior to their cat’s strange personality or being nothing more than an unusual quirk. But is that all it is, or is there a legitimate reason your cat may find plastic to be a delectable snack? To find out why cats lick plastic, read on!
Why is My Cat Obsessed With Plastic?
Any plastic object may pique the interest of the average cat. But some cats don’t just like plastic — they can’t seem to get enough of it! If it appears like your cat’s interest in plastic is bordering on “obsession,” there are dozens of possible explanations. Here are some of the more probable reasons why your cat is obsessed with plastic:
Medical Reasons (i.e., Pica)
In the television show My Strange Addiction, viewers often get a firsthand look at the medical condition known as “pica” — a glimpse into the secret lives of folks who eat dryer sheets, drink gasoline, or chew on chalk. Many cats also struggle with this unusual condition and face the uncontrollable desires to eat, chew, or lick non-food items that come with it.
Some kitties suck on plastic the way they’d nurse with their mother, a sign that a kitten may have weaned before she was ready. Other times, these unusual cravings stem from:
- An unbalanced diet (a specific nutrient is missing)
- Breed (Oriental cats seem to struggle with pica more often)
- Medical issues like FIV, diabetes, or anemia
- Stress and anxiety
- Digestive and dental problems (licking or chewing the plastic may temporarily ease these issues)
If your cat’s desire to lick plastic seems compulsive or sudden, it could be a sign that your cat has an undetected medical condition. In other words, you might want to bring your cat to the vet. A simple blood test may reveal that a lack of vitamin D is triggering your cat’s pica, or your vet may tell you that your cat needs a little more playtime during the day to break this bad habit.
It could be hard to figure out whether your cat is licking or sucking on plastic (or another material) to self-soothe or doing so because of a condition like pica. The Jackson Galaxy video below describes how to tell the difference.
Is it a grocery bag or a used snack baggie that your cat can’t seem to stop licking? Then you may have just answered your own question! Cats have an incredible sense of smell — about 14 times more powerful than the average human’s. It’s the same reason your cat greets you in the kitchen when you toss a turkey into the oven or reheat the leftover chicken from last night.
In other words, your carnivorous cat can effortlessly detect the scent of the raw chicken, cold cuts, or bologna sandwich that you once had in the plastic bag. Meaty aromas in plastic bags may be captivating your cat’s olfactory receptors, and she can’t help but treat herself to a snack!
Gelatin & Other Additives
Did you know that there’s far more to plastic bags than plastic? It’s true! For example, some manufacturers add gelatin to their plastic products — a jelly-like substance from the ligaments, bones, and tendons of pigs and cows — while others infuse an animal fat known as stearate.
Though that plastic grocery bag may smell like regular plastic to you, your cat’s sensitive olfactory receptors may pick up on this carnivorous aroma and want to give it a taste. Interestingly, some felines can also sense the cornstarch added to biodegradable bags and find the scent alluring enough to lick it.
The hearing range of cats is nothing but remarkable. While humans can hear sounds ranging between 64 and 23,000 Hertz, a cat’s hearing range is nearly triple that — closer to 45 to 64,000 Hertz. These impressive auditory skills allow cats to hear sounds that humans cannot, such as the sound of a rodent rustling around in the attic or a mouse’s ultrasonic communications.
Many cats find the gentle crinkling sounds of plastic bags to be satisfying. Just like your cat has the instinctual drive to chase a mouse in your home, the sound of plastic bags may remind your cat of a mouse and make her want to lick it — rodents are snacks, after all!
In the same way that some cats suck on thick wool when they have pica, other cats crave certain textures. That plastic bin, water bottle, or bag may be the smoothest object in your entire house — and your cat has undoubtedly taken notice! Your cat may lick plastic because she enjoys the sensation of the smooth texture on her sandpaper-like tongue.
Now, touch the nearest plastic item to you, and you’ll notice something else: It’s noticeably colder than the rest of the room! If your cat feels overheated or merely enjoys the cold sensation against her hot tongue, don’t be surprised if you catch her licking plastic now and then.
Is Licking Plastic Bad for Cats?
Licking plastic typically isn’t bad for cats, but it can be harmful if this odd behavior includes chewing or eating the plastic (such as if your cat has pica). Your cat’s digestive system can usually pass a tiny piece of a plastic bag or even bits of a hair tie with ease, though you might find remnants of each in your cat’s poop or vomit within 24 hours.
However, larger pieces of plastic can become lodged in your cat’s gut, triggering an intestinal blockage that can ultimately restrict the blood flow to your cat’s organs and prove to be life-threatening. In other words, your cat’s plastic-eating hobby can land her in emergency surgery to remove a blockage from her intestines — which also comes with a hefty $1,000+ bill!
But the dangers don’t stop there.
If you don’t witness your cat swallow the plastic, you may not even realize what’s causing your cat’s sudden bout of diarrhea or unusual lethargy. As a result, you may delay a vet visit and chalk up these symptoms to the weather or a recent food change — every hour you wait, the more likely your cat is suffering from irreversible tissue damage or shock.
Assuming your cat isn’t chewing or swallowing her new plastic “toys,” then this behavior is mostly harmless and probably only a strange quirk your cat picked up long ago. Your cat may be licking plastic because it comforts her — not because she’s hungry!
But the risk of intestinal blockages and choking does exist, meaning it’s a good idea to keep plastic baggies out of your cat’s reach. A vet appointment might be necessary if your cat tends to lick, chew, or eat non-food items like plastic, as this odd behavior may be a sign of an underlying health condition.
- VCA Hospitals: Ingestion of Foreign Bodies in Cat
- Fetch by WebMD: Why Is My Cat Eating That?
- Wikipedia: Gelatin
- LSU: How Well Do Dogs and Other Animals Hear?
- VCA Hospitals: Why Cats Sniff Butts
Pam is a self-confessed cat lover and has experience of working with cats and owning cats for as long as she can remember. This website is where she gets to share her knowledge and interact with other cat lovers.