Why Do Cats Lick Tape and Plastic?

“There really are no bounds to what a cat might try to ingest,” says one cat behavior expert.
Cats will try to eat just about anything.
Cats will try to eat just about anything. / 101cats/E+/Getty Images
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Who doesn’t love a good snack? Something sweet, sticky, maybe a bit rubbery, something made out of plastic … We’re talking about cats, of course. Our precious furbabies are known for eating basically everything they shouldn’t.

“There really are no bounds to what a cat might try to ingest,” Dr. Mikel (Maria) Delgado, cat behavior expert with Rover.com, tells Mental Floss. “It can be any of a wide variety of objects. I’ve known cats who ate clothing, coins, phone cords, paper, plastic, floss, earplugs, and other household things.”

Tape and other adhesives are some of the more common snacks cats seem to appreciate—it’s not unusual to walk into a room and find your buddy licking packing tape on a box or maybe with Scotch Tape stuck to their nose (speaking from experience). Delgado says there’s likely a medical reason for why cats eat pretty much whatever.

“Cats who lick or bite tape may have a condition called pica, which is a compulsive behavior condition that leads cats to chew and ingest non-food items,” she says.

The exact cause of pica is unknown, Delgado says, noting that not much research has been done on the topic. Veterinarians know it’s a compulsive behavior that can be exacerbated by stress, frustration, or eating regimens, like if your cat is meal-fed rather than free-fed. (For cats with pica, free-feeding is usually better, but in general vets prefer cats to be meal-fed.) But that doesn’t explain the underlying cause, which could be anything from environmental triggers to genetics. And if your cat has a digestive disorder, Delgado says, they’re more likely to have pica. And according to the Merck Veterinary Manual, oriental breeds of cats are predisposed to developing the disorder.

Pica may not be the only explanation for your cat’s weird snacking habits, though.

Delgado says cats may be attracted to tape because it smells funny, makes a fun crinkling sound, or has a pleasing texture. Rumors around the internet say it feels good on a cat’s tongue. And we can’t rule out the idea that cats just think it’s fun to mess with stuff they shouldn’t. But unless Fluffy is diagnosed with pica, there’s really no way to be sure of the reason. “Unfortunately, we can’t ask the cats,” Delgado says—at least not in a way that would let us understand their answer.

The best thing pet owners can do is to try and stop pica-like behavior by keeping tiny bits that may attract cats out of reach and taking any boxes with tape to the recycling bin right away. Eating small items or non-edibles can be harmful and lead to some awfully high vet bills.

“A cat who ingests tape or other non-food items can experience a gastrointestinal blockage which can be dangerous and even require expensive surgery,” Delgado says. “If your cat shows signs of pica, talk to a veterinarian who can help with diagnosis and treatment.”