One of the most bizarre and baffling cat behaviors, fabric-eating, is the subject of a new study at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine, where nearby cats are sought for medical trials. Fabric-eating may be a form of feline obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), according to animal-behavior specialists who plan to treat cats with small doses of the same antidepressant drug used by some human OCD patients.
Cat owners who are within driving distance of Ithaca and seek treatment for fabric-eating cats are asked to call the Cornell Animal Behavior Clinic, (607) 253-3840, for more information.
"Fabric-eating is the ingestion of non-food items, and it's occasionally seen in cats," explained Diane Frank, D.V.M., a resident in animal behavior who is leading the new study. "Fabric-eating seems to start around puberty, most often with wool, and may move on to other fabrics and materials as well: Cotton, nylon and other synthetics, wood, plastic, rubber, almost anything. I've had reports of cats chewing on the sofa. Most of the time, the material will go through the cat without too many problems, but occasionally cats require surgery to remove these foreign materials."
Siamese and other Oriental breeds are the most frequent offenders, Frank said, noting that the disorder is also seen in domestic mixed-breed cats that may be part-Siamese. In the most extreme and frustrating cases, pets are given up for adoption or are euthanized, so the Cornell veterinarians are seeking a solution to a longstanding puzzle.
"There have been a lot of different hypotheses about fabric-eating," said Frank, the Friskies Petcare Resident in Animal Behavior at Cornell. "Some theories say this may be redirected suckling behavior in cats that were weaned too early. Some people believe that fabric-eating could be related to separation anxiety in cats that are very attached to their owners and are distraught when the owners are away. Or perhaps some of these cats need a little more fiber in their diet," she said.
The possibility that fabric-eating is a feline OCD will be tested by first ruling out underlying medical causes for the behavior. Cats that are selected for the study will be hospitalized overnight for medical exams, then sent home with pills and instructions for their owners: A one-week "control" period with no medication but with the opportunity to eat whatever the cat prefers, followed by 60 days of once-a-day pills and a once-a-week chance to eat the non-food material. A fee of $12 will be charged to help cover expenses.
Owners will be asked to record their cats' behavior and, if possible, to videotape any interesting occurrences. The Cornell veterinarians also are starting to collect strange things that fabric-eating cats consume, Frank said, displaying a partially-devoured survey form from a concerned cat owner.
"Owners ask us if we've ever heard of other cats doing this," Frank said, "and when we tell them, 'yes,' they're almost relieved that their cat isn't the only one."