By John Gilpatrick
It’s not hard to tell if your cat is a destructive chewer. Do you sometimes see her chewing things until they’re unrecognizable? Do many of your belongings look like the gnarled pencils you used in fourth grade? If you answered “yes” to either question, you’ve come to the right place.
There are many reasons why cats chew on things they shouldn’t, from wanting to soothe their gums during teething to exercising their natural instinct to slice and dice with their sharp back teeth.
“Some cats also use their mouths to explore the world around them,” says Katenna Jones, a Rhode Island-based certified cat behavior consultant. “In that way, they see chewing as fun—almost like a form of play.”
Elise Gouge, a certified pet behavior consultant and trainer based in Massachusetts, agrees. “Cats chew for the enjoyment of it,” she says. “For them, it’s a tactile and enriching activity.”
We asked the experts to break down why cats chew things, when it becomes destructive, and what you can do to prevent or control this behavior.
Is Chewing Normal for Cats?
Chewing is a common behavior in cats, but that doesn’t mean it’s something that can or should be ignored.
“Whether chewing is normal is all relative to the cat, his health, and his level of activity,” Gouge says. “It becomes excessive when it interferes with other activities or is self-injurious.”
It’s important to rule out an underlying medical problem, such as gum disease or gastrointestinal problems, that could be causing your cat’s chewing, Jones adds. “They could be trying to relieve themselves of pain or discomfort, or they’re calling to you, trying to bring your attention to problems like these,” she says. Redness of the gums can be a sign of a dental problem, while Jones says excessive salivating or licking may indicate that your cat’s stomach is acting up.
Behavioral problems can also be associated with destructive chewing, says Dr. Jennifer Coates, veterinary advisor for petMD and author of Dictionary of Veterinary Terms: Vet-speak Deciphered for the Non-Veterinarian. “Cats need mental stimulation and physical exercise to keep them from becoming bored, anxious, frustrated, or stressed. If they don’t have enough to do, they’ll find an outlet for all that mental and physical energy themselves…and you may not like the results.”
In any of these cases, you should consult with your vet to treat the underlying problem. When the issue clears up, the chewing should either go away or lessen in frequency.
Risks of Destructive Chewing in Cats
A cat’s teeth are much sharper than a dog’s (or ours)—“like a scalpel compared to a butter knife,” Jones says. For this reason, cat teeth are built for almost any level of chewing and rarely get harmed via this behavior.
More common are concerns about what your cat is chewing and what she may ingest. “Issues that could result from chewing include ingesting dangerous materials such as string,” Gouge says. “Cats are also very sensitive and could be hurt by ingesting chemicals in items they chew.”
Because chewing tends to be a natural behavior meant to exercise a cat’s more carnivorous instincts, Gouge says they may gravitate toward items that are soft and fuzzy—things that mimic the feeling of capturing prey. On the other hand, wires can be especially problematic because electricity may be flowing through them, and, therefore, it’s important to cover the cords or block your pet’s access to them.
Other harmful items cats may chew on include toxic plants, small toys or other objects, ribbons, tinsel, and yarn. In many of these cases, chewing can be dangerous because of the risk of consuming something that can get stuck in your cat’s digestive system. “Oftentimes when a cat eats something indigestible that is comparatively large or string-like, the only way to deal with the situation is for a veterinarian to go in surgically, remove the object, and try to repair any damage that it has done,” Coates adds. If you think your cat has swallowed something dangerous, call your veterinarian immediately.
Stopping Unwanted Chewing Behaviors
Sometimes, the simplest idea is the best. If you want to prevent your cat from chewing on your personal items, put them out of reach.
“Make sure string, yarn, and twine is not left out,” Gouge says. “Protect your plants with wire fencing.”
You can also use furniture and carpets to block off access to wires and certain corners of your house where you may keep something that’s tempting to your cat’s chewing instinct, Jones says. If that’s not possible, she suggests using lemon, cayenne, rosemary, or another scent that cats find unappealing to deter them.
Jones says clicker training is a great way to teach your cat that it pays to walk away from something rather than chew it. That said, it can be a time-consuming process because you may need to train for multiple objects.
An easier way to modify chewing behavior is to simply provide your cat with ample exercise and enrichment, including appropriate objects to chew on.
“Especially when it comes to indoor-only cats, it's important to provide them outlets to expend their energy in healthy, interactive ways each day,” Gouge says. “This can include grooming them, letting them chase stuffed mice or balls, and giving them access to perches to watch birds or squirrels outside, among other things.” Cat toys and treats designed for chewing are available through many retailers. Cat grass is another good option, since many cats who like to chew also like to graze.