Downtime

My Cat Has an Eating Disorder. What Should I Do?

He’s gnawing his way through my wardrobe.

Cat chewing a colorful sock and only sort of looking remorseful, if cats can even do that.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Beast Mode is Slate’s pet advice column. Have a question? Send it to beastmode@slate.com.

Dear Beast Mode,

I have three cats. Two are sweet blind brothers while the third, “Manny,” is bonded to us and has a fiery personality. We just had our first child, and I knew that this would be a huge adjustment for all three cats, but especially Manny. Unfortunately, I had a difficult pregnancy and was very sick the entire time. I believe this stressed out Manny because he started eating my clothes. He was always the type of cat from whom we had to hide shoelaces, but this is next level. He eats my sweaters, bras, bathing suits, dresses, socks, and shirts. He chewed up my leggings until they looked like Swiss cheese. I have to do laundry like a ninja. I also had to start keeping the bedroom door shut to save my clothes.

My son is now 5 months old, and I think Manny has mostly adjusted to his presence, but he is still craving attention. I try to give him as much love as possible, but how can I stop him from eating my clothes?

—Wardrobe Worrier

Dear Wardrobe Worrier,

Cats have a reputation to maintain. They want us to think they are stone-cold badasses who play by their own rules, when in reality they are sticklers for routine and sensitive to the tumults of life. They strut around with the swagger and grace of Fonzies, but deep down they’re Richie Cunninghams. (Please don’t tell cats I said this.) Your family has experienced some big changes and challenges, and Manny is displaying the kind of concern that is to be expected from such a sweet guy. He just has a funny way of showing it, and your wardrobe is paying the price.

According to Mikel Delgado, a UC–Davis School of Veterinary Medicine postdoctoral researcher and certified animal behaviorist, Manny is likely displaying signs of pica, a condition that results in the chewing and ingestion of nonfood items. It’s certainly rough on your clothing, but it could be even worse for Manny. “If the cat is actually eating parts of the fabric or other objects, it can cause digestive problems,” Delgado says. “It also can cause an impaction, so it could require surgery.” Delgado advises that you consult your vet as soon as possible. It’s also crucial that you keep your clothes away from him as best you can.

Delgado acknowledges that stress is a major factor with pica, but she notes there could be underlying medical problems as well. “Even though [pica] is often considered … a compulsive behavior related to anxiety, it appears that there’s also a relationship with digestive comfort. I would definitely want to rule that out.”

Hopefully Manny will get a clean bill of health, but you should be proactive about alleviating his stress. “It’s possible that the cat will need some kind of psychoactive medication to treat the behavior if this is an anxiety-related problem,” Delgado says, “so that’s another good reason to establish contact with your veterinarian.”

Beyond medical attention, addressing Manny’s environment is key. Delgado says cats “do have needs for daily exercise and mental stimulation,” and she recommends providing plenty of vertical space for Manny and your other cats to explore, as well as scratching posts, toys, and separate feeding stations if they don’t already have them. You can even get him a food puzzle, a device that will provide him with the kind of mealtime stimulation he might be missing now that he can’t develop his own haute couture line from your closet.

Obviously, your infant is your priority right now. I adopted a puppy around the same time my sister gave birth, and she rightfully threatened me with murder when I tried to commiserate about the challenges of rearing our respective young. I won’t make that mistake again, and I certainly don’t need to tell you that a new baby is time-consuming. But if you can take a short, regularly scheduled break each day to play around with Manny, it will help him relax and adjust to his new life as an older brother. Don’t expect him to apologize for when he chewed up your clothes, however. Cats have a reputation to maintain.