Why does your cat eat plastic bags. And how to make him stop

What’s that rustling sound over there? That’s a cat eating a plastic bag left on the floor. Cats are known for their curiosity and habit of eating nonfood items, such as plastic bags, wool blankets, shoelaces, paper, power cords, pebbles, and stainless steel.

In this article, we will take a closer look at plastic. Why do cats eat plastic? Is it dangerous? How do you stop your cat from eating plastic wrappings and shower curtains?

Summer the cat hiding in a plastic bag
Summer discovers a discarded grocery bag. Photo by normanack, cc

Note: Most cats play, crawl inside, and tear plastic bags apart with their claws. While you might reconsider the safety of such practices, there’s nothing mysterious about them. Cats are curious, they naturally love hiding, the plastic bags move swiftly with even a tiniest air current — all of this appeals to cats. But the monotonous, constant chewing of a plastic bag or wrapping it with the teeth is something worth investigating.

Why do cats eat plastic?

First things first. Why do cats find plastic so appealing? Obviously, it’s not because they are hungry. There are several theories, but, unfortunately, cats don’t speak so they can’t confirm them.

  • Health problems and nutritional deficiencies? This is highly unlikely with plastic (unless your cat is deficient in polyvinyl chloride, or PVC), although chewing on plastic could be a relief from discomfort due to illness. In a sudden onset of this behavior, it’s a wise choice to consult your veterinarian, especially if you see other signs, as well.
  • Curiosity. Cats are curious animals. They love exploring newly arrived items; hence, the plastic bags you bring in from the grocery store are worth exploring. Some cats play with plastic bags, some eat them.
  • Taste. We can’t allege that cats like the taste of the plastic. What we can tell is that if they didn’t like it, they wouldn’t be eating it. However, taste alone shouldn’t be the reason why a cat chews on plastic items. Try it yourself and you’ll see that plastic has little to no taste. Or are we wrong? (P.S.: Yes, we tried. It’s good, but paper is much better.)
  • Fun thing to do. The crunchy and poppy sound, the investigation of something unusual, hiding inside the plastic bag, the massagelike sensation on teeth, lips, and gums are a few of the contributing factors.
  • Anything to do. Yes, it is fun, but not as much as many other things that a cat could do. Unfortunately, some indoor cats don’t have access to even a few of these. Chewing on a plastic, however, is readily available. And it is more fun than staring at an empty wall (wink, the wall must not be empty). If your cat is not able to run, chase, leap, and eat prey, he is likely to find an alternative activity. Some cats eat plastic.
  • Stress relief. Why do humans eat plastic? They don’t? OK, why do humans pop Bubble Wrap? Some say it’s fun, others say it helps reduce boredom, but many find it relaxing. It’s repetitive, easy-to-do, and helps take the focus away from your problems. Pretty much like eating plastic.

Is it dangerous for cats to eat plastic?

Short online answer: Yes. Longer online answer: Ask your veterinarian.

Every situation can be different. In most cases, if a cat eats a plastic bag or other form of plastic, there are several risks:

  • Choking hazard or digestive tract obstruction, if a cat swallows small pieces of plastic. Grocery bags often have small bits falling off them and cats have backward-facing barbs on their tongue, which prevents cats from spitting out objects. You will learn more about foreign-body ingestion hereNOTE: The fact that a cat has eaten plastic bags for years and has never choked is not a guarantee of safety. Very few cats choke twice in their lifetime.
  • Suffocation hazard if a cat crawls inside a bag and cannot get out. While adult cats might be strong enough or intelligent enough to get out, kittens are at extremely high risk.
  • Strangulation hazard if a plastic bag has handles. In this situation, a kitten is also exposed to greater danger because of its weaker coordination and greater curiosity, when compared to those of adult cats.

Some might also point to plastic toxicity, but that should be a concern only if your cat consumes a large amount of plastic every day. However, without toxicity, there are enough risks to consider preventing your cat from chewing on plastic. Besides, sometimes cats chew on valuable objects, such as shower curtains.

Besides immediate risks, a cat eating plastic can also signal several underlying causes, such as medical discomfort, lack of physical and mental activity, as well as an increased amount of stress.

How to stop cats from eating plastic

In a sudden onset of the problem, a vet visit might be sensible. If you have concluded that your cat’s habit does not have a medical origin, here’s how to stop it:

  1. Tuck the targeted object safely away. Store plastic bags in a container on a shelf in a bag hung on a wall. Dispose of plastic wrapping as soon as you unpack items. Keep items that are chewed on in the closet or the basement.
  2. If you can’t get the object away, like if it’s a shower curtain, you can treat it with a spray-on cat deterrent that makes the object distasteful. In the initial trial, it should be applied frequently, but after a while, as your cat loses interest in the object, you may apply it less often. If applying a bitter-tasting detergent is inconvenient in your situation, see other ways to deter cats here.
  3. Play with your cat. Playing is the strongest form of stimulation for cats. Playing is an artificial alternative to hunting, a task that occupies a large part of the time of your cat’s wild counterparts. Cats in the wild do not chew on plastic bags not because there are very few cats running around, but because they don’t really have time for it. Grab “a mouse on a string“ or “a feather on a stick“ toy, and let your cat stalk, chase, and then pounce and chew on it. Incorporate even a tiny bit of this activity into your cat’s schedule, and you’ll see dramatic improvement in most of aspects.
  4. Provide your cat with alternatives to chew. Disallowing something for a cat (or dog or human) is not easy, because it always involves some degree of frustration. But there is a good solution: Instead of telling them what not to do, tell them what they should do instead. Get your cat a pot of kitty grass and place it near where he usually chews bags. It’s likely that even without hiding the plastic, your cat will prefer the grass. Additionally, you can get your cat some catnipped toys or dental toys that are fun and safe to chew.
  5. Reduce your cat’s general stress. It’s not a bad thing to undergo some degree of it, because this is how the world functions. Unfortunately, stress can easily build up. Some cats may become more aggressive under the stress, some may begin to groom themselves excessively, and some may chew plastic or wool. Playing, as mentioned before, works a great deal to minimize your cat’s stress, but that’s not all. You also have to figure out what’s causing it. Find out more information about relieving stress in cats here.

Even though you might think that chewing plastic is a harmless activity, it isn’t. It may point to some underlying problems, such as generalized stress or boredom, which, by any means, should be sorted out. Eating plastic is not part of a cat’s natural behavior, and you should direct your cat toward more appropriate, more catlike activities.