Sucking on wool or other fuzzy fabrics seem to be a common occurrence among cats. This can be merely an annoying habit, potential health issue or an indicator of a physical or emotional problem. Wool sucking can be a life-long habit but, in many cats, it begins in mid-life. The exact cause(s) of this behavior have not been fully studied but, many theories abound:

1. Early Weaning - Most domestic cats are weaned at 6-7 weeks but, sometimes early weaning occurs, due the death of the queen or someone adopting out the kittens before they are fully weaned. The instinct to suckle is very strong in young kittens and they may continue to try to suckle anything soft, warm and fuzzy that resembles a mother cat. This may be a blanket, a toy or your favorite cashmere sweater.

2. Stress - If a cat is stressed, it may exhibit obsessive-compulsive behaviors, of which wool-sucking is one. Others include fur-pulling, paw-sucking, tail-chewing or flank-licking.

3. Genetics - Oriental breeds, such as Siamese, Balinese, Tonkinese and their crosses seem to be more prone to wool-sucking than European or North American breeds.

4. Diet - The wool-sucking cat may be lacking fiber in its diet and cats cannot distinguish dietary from non-dietary fiber. If the cat confines its sucking to wool only, it may be attracted to the taste of lanolin (this may also be the reason cats like to lick human skin after lotion has been applied).

5. PICA - This is the abnormal compulsion to eat non-food substances, such as clothing, plastic, wood, etc. It is most often associated with pregnant women but is also seen in non-pregnant women and animals.

In addition to being hard on your wardrobe, wool-sucking can lead to health problems for the cat. Just like hairballs, ingested fibers can impact in a cat's digestive tract, causing obstructions requiring veterinary care, up to and including surgery or (in extreme cases) euthanasia. If the cat becomes lethargic, constipated and/or begins vomiting excessively, have it checked by a vet for a vitamin/mineral deficiency or gastrointestinal obstruction.

If your cat has a wool sucking problem, the right course of action would be to consult your veterinarian first and a cat behaviorist next. Here is a quick review of here are several methods to prevent or discourage wool-sucking, but please note that different cases may require different action plans. An experienced Cat Behavior Consultant can help you determine which is best for your cat.

1. Avoiding Early Weaning – One of the best ways to prevent a wool-sucking problem is by making sure that kittens are never separated from the mother cat before the age of 12 weeks. Professional ethical cat breeders would never part with a kitten before it is 12 weeks old and sometimes even 16 weeks old, for that reason.

2. Diet - Feeding the cat a high-fiber diet of dry cat food sometimes eliminates or decreases wool sucking, as does feeding lanolin. The lanolin has the added benefit of easing the passage of hairballs.

3. Aversion - If the cat has one favorite object and it won't harm the fabric, pet deterrent sprays may sometimes help. This, and other deterrence techniques, should be used with caution, as they do not address the cause of the problem.

4. Diversion - When the cat is observed suckling, replace the item with a fuzzy toy, an old sock, rawhide chew or a beef bone. There is also a product called The Catsifer. This is a cat-shaped pillow, covered in faux fur on one side and has four latex nipples on the other. The manufacturer claims that this allows the cat to safely satisfy the need to suck.

5. Isolation - Keep all blankets, sweaters, etc. safely put away. If the cat's desired object is a piece of furniture, isolate the cat from that room. The latter could be a problem, if the object of desire is the blanket on YOUR bed.

6. Medication - If the wool-sucking is caused by stress, antidepressants, such as clomipramine (Clomicalm), fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil) and sertraline (Zoloft) have proven effective. These drugs may take four to six weeks to start working and peak effects may not be seen for up to three or four months. When antidepressants don't work, anti-anxiety medications, such as buspirone (BuSpar) may sometimes do the trick. In some cases, 0.5 mg of thyroid hormone has been effective. Care must be taken, when administering these drugs, as they can interact with other medications the cat may be on. As always, your Veterinarian is the only person qualified to determine if a course of drugs should be used and how.

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