We all know that cats love catnip, but have you ever noticed your cat eating dirt or licking bricks? Rather than a sign of hunger, this may be related to the cat's instinct to self-medicate, a phenomenon seen in many wild animals. Pregnant elephants eat from a specific tree to induce labor, and chimps have been observed eating special leaves to remove parasites. Many animals eat dirt to help them digest toxins in their diets.
Even domestic animals show signs of self-medication, despite the time and distance removed from their wild ancestors. If you do notice strange behavior, it's possible that your cat is just taking steps to return to 100% purring capacity.
Why Would a Cat Self-Medicate?
Just like humans have developed drugs and patterns of behavior for recovery (everyone knows the healing power of chicken soup and a good night's sleep), animals have also found ways to feel better. Zoopharmacognosy is a relatively new field of biology which focuses on the way animals self-medicate. Just like the chimps and elephants mentioned above, cats may try to self-medicate out of an instinct to solve their common health problems.
Based on what has been seen in other animals, cats may try to self-medicate for a variety of reasons:
To cure an upset stomach or remove intestinal parasites:
Cats may eat dirt or plants to cure a tummy ache caused by indigestion or worms. An inert or fibrous substance may be just what they need to absorb or clear out unwanted materials.
To add iron if anemic:
Cats may lick bricks or eat cat litter if they are anemic, in an effort to find more iron. Cat food contains the iron they need, so such anemia is likely caused by some other health problem. If such behavior persists, you may want to consult your veterinarian.
To soothe irritated skin:
Cats may crush and spread ants on their fur as a kind of topical treatment. It may sound strange, but it has also been observed in birds and squirrels, so it must provide some relief. Don't be too concerned if you observe this, but check your cat's skin and fur for rashes or insects.
Or for recreation:
Catnip is the most famous form of cat self-medication, but so far it is only known to be enjoyed for pleasure. That said, the enjoyment may be good for their health in reasonable amounts.
How Can They Find the Medicine They Need?
Cats may not have access to all the plants needed to fix their problems, depending upon the climate or region, and especially if they live indoors. Zoopharmacognosts believe that if cats have access to the right plants, they can pick out what they need, but this kind of “treatment” may not be available.
It's also possible that cats won't know which herb will make them feel better, due to domestication. Some of the self-medication seen in the wild appears to be learned—such as mother chimps teaching their young which leaves will treat parasite problems. After many generations of living in homes, cats may not have much “folk knowledge” to draw on or know how to treat more serious health problems.
Similarly, many of the supplements wild cats once needed to seek out for good health are included in cat food, so your cat shouldn't need more. Observing self-medicating behavior is a good sign that your cat is not entirely well. Don't panic; try to determine if your pet might have a problem by ruling out minor issues.
So What Should I Do?
If you pay attention to the ways your cat may be self-medicating, it may give you clues about what your cat is experiencing. If they are rubbing against plants or rolling in dirt, they may be irritated by something on their skin or fur. If they are eating strange things, they may have indigestion or a stomachache.
Also watch them to ensure they are not eating any plants which may be poisonous, such as holly around the holidays. Make sure you're protecting your cat from additional problems caused by houseplants or other toxins in your house.
What We Can Learn from Cats
Signs of self-medication in cats remind us that there are natural remedies for many problems. Scientists are beginning study the ways animals self-medicate to determine if such remedies might also be suitable for humans. The next time you curl up with your soup to recover from a cold, you may not think your cat's behavior is that strange, after all.
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This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet. It has, however, been verified by a licensed veterinarian for accuracy.