Why Do Cats Lick and Chew Plastic? – 9 Reasons for This Odd Behavior

Last Updated on October 29, 2021 by Jenny

You, as well as millions of other cat owners, are very familiar with this scenario – as you’re putting your groceries away, you hear some swishing.

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You look and you see your cat all over your shopping bag. It’s playing with it and it’s licking it as if it were a toy and it is extremely territorial about it. But why do cats lick plastic bags anyway and what makes so crazy about them? How come the simplest plastic bag can become its favorite toy and place within minutes? Is it the smell? Is it the texture? Is it the taste? Well, it all of those and then some! That’s right!

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There are plenty of reasons why your cat is in love with your plastic bags and we are going to explore them all to solve the mystery of their love for plastic.

Disclaimer: Of course, plastic bags are not toys – much like you wouldn’t give a human toddler a plastic bag to play with. Plastic bags are dangerous and can cause suffocation. However, it was important to explain why cats are attracted and interested in plastic bags, hence the reason for this article. As with everything in life, please use common sense and your better judgment when living with cats.

Why do cats like to sit inside plastic bags?

There are a number of reasons why plastic bags can set off your cat’s senses, making them love sitting in a plastic bag. There’s all kinds of scents and aromas left by animal fat and other products that have been carried in the bag. Plus, the crinkly sound of plastic can be really entertaining to a cat, and even help to reduce their anxiety.

Plus, plastic bags provide a new sheltered space. If your cat has a compulsion to hide away, then a plastic bag – complete with all those delicious food smells – might be very enticing.

Reason No. 1 – That Amazing Smell

Enticing food smells. It’s all about the smell of the bag…and, most importantly, everything that was in it! That’s right, it’s a whole whirlpool of smells in your plastic bags. Why? Because plastic preserves the smell of the items that were in it.

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While this may be difficult for your nose to notice, it is not the same for your cat, that has a very keen sense of smell and can feel everything in high definition. The beef, the fish, and the cheese that were in your bag a week ago still smell pretty awesome for your cat today. Now think about the past of your plastic bags and all the deliciousness that was in them. Your cat certainly is! So, it makes perfect sense that your cat is licking them. Not only do they taste like plastic (we’ll get to why that’s interesting right away), but they also taste like a full-on meal.

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Plastic bags are essentially lollipops for your cat. So, next time you see your cat licking a bag, think about the things you had in it to understand their enthusiasm.

Reason No. 2 – That Dazzling Swishing

Not only do cats have a very acute sense of smell, but they also have excellent hearing! So when that bag starts swishing, it sounds extremely enticing to them and they start playing. They’ll sit on the bag and start moving it with their paws and licking it and biting it and what do they get in return? A plastic symphony, of course! Every move the bag makes sounds fantastic to your cat.

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This is also one of the reasons why they spend so much time playing with bags. Like we said above, bags are their new favorite toys every single time, so it makes perfect sense that they want to enjoy them. Also, the bag never runs out of batteries. It will swish every time they touch it, so it’s unlimited fun with plastic bags for your cat!

Reason No. 3 – That Smooth Texture

Along with the cats’ highly developed sense of smell and hearing comes their sense of touch. Their paws, as well as the rest of their skin can feel the finest of textures.

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Wild cats need that to get a good idea of the terrain they’re on and get quicker reactions to be better hunters. As for your household cat, this refined sense of touch makes plastic bags feel absolutely fantastic. Imagine being able to feel the smooth lush texture of a plastic bag in high definition and all around your body. It’s slippery, it’s polished, it’s glossy, it is absolutely amazing! This is why your cat rubs its entire body on it! So, the next time you see your kitty stretching all over your plastic bag, rest assured that it’s having the time of its life!

Reason No. 4 – Those Irresistible Pheromones

Mental short circuit. A lesser-known fact about the simple shopping bag is that it is made from plastic that contains substances that are quite similar in smell to pheromones.

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This simple detail remains impossible to notice for humans, but it drives cats absolutely crazy! With one whiff of your bag, it will get an instant boost and it will feel extremely excited about the bag. So, it will go on to cuddle it for hours because the smell is breathtaking!

This is also one of the reasons why your cat likes some bags better than others (plastic bags are all the rage!), regardless of their previous contents. It’s not only the fish that was in your bag minutes ago that can make a plastic bag irresistible, but also its chemical structure. More importantly, the presence of those pheromone smell-alikes.

Reason No. 5 – That Corn Starch Deliciousness

The corn starch factor. Yes, you read that right. Now, let us explain! Many of the biodegradable plastic bags that are currently in use are made with corn starch, which cats seem to be very attracted to. So, the next time you get one of those smooth-textured bio bags, expect your cat to be very excited about it.

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It’s the smell, the taste, and the texture that feel fantastic for your cat, so it is bound to love that bio bag right away. Moreover, it is completely different than the regular plastic bag it has been playing with, which also makes it somewhat of a novelty! Your cat is going to be even more curious to play with it, stretch in it, and, inevitably, lick it! Even though the corn starch is going to make a difference, you shouldn’t be worried about your cat eating the bag. If this happens, the situation is entirely different. We’ll get to that right away.

Reason No. 6 – Those Tasty Lubricants

Plastic bags get their much-desired smoothness from lubricants. They are usually treated with stearates, which are chemical substances derived from tallow. Another option is lanolin, which is a natural compound found in sheep – lanolin is the substance that makes a sheep’s coat feel greasy. Lanolin is meant to keep the sheep’s coat dry.

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Reason No. 7 – Marking That Territory

This should come as no news for cat owners, but cats are extremely territorial. They go out of their way to mark their space and their belongings as clearly as possible. It’s part of the reason why cats knead, but it is also one of the reasons why cats put their paws and their tongues on their favorite bags. You may not know this, but cats have special scent glands in their paws, which they use to mark their territory.

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So, when they are playing with their favorite plastic bag, they are also claiming it by smearing their personal smell all over the bag. This is particularly relevant in households with two or more cats. When there is another cat present in the house, it must be extremely clear for it that the bag is already taken. In fact, if you do have more cats in your home, you may have noticed that they do not share bags. If you’ve read this far, you now know that the relationship between a cat and its bag is multi-sensory and extremely personal. It is a rare sight to see two cats on the same bag or one cat on the other’s favorite plastic bag. Why? Because no cat wants to stretch all over a bag that smells like its house companion. Once a bag has been claimed, it virtually becomes undesirable for other cats.

Reason No. 8 – All of These Things Combined

Now that we’ve unraveled the mysteries of the beloved plastic bags and you know that there’s more than meets the eye…and the nose when it comes to shopping bags, we’d like to point out that your cat experienced all of these things at the same time! Take a moment to think about it. The simple plastic bag feels, smells, testes, and sings amazingly all at once!

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This is why your cat loves it so much. When you present that bag to your cat, it gets on a sensory roller-coaster! It can feel the lanolin on the bag at the same time as the delicious fish you had in it last week, all while enjoying the smooth texture all over its body. And to top it all out, it swishes every time it touches it, which makes your cat want to play! The next time you see your kitty playing with a bag, rest assured that it is having a great time!

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Reason No. 9 – Those Odd Eating Habits

We’re finally getting to the odd eating habits that cats get sometimes.

What is Pica in cats?

To make it clear, it is perfectly normal for a cat to have a close relationship with its bag, to lick it, to stretch on it, to play with it, to cuddle it, but it is most certainly not normal for a cat to eat a bag. If the bag tastes like fish or meat, then some nibbling might be expected, but when cats actually bite into the plastic and swallow it, things get to a pathologic level.

This is called pica syndrome and it is manifested by cats eating things they would never normally eat like plastic, small rocks, grass, yarn, wool, clothing or other non-food items. If you notice this, then it is very important to take your cat to the vet. Pica is a clear signal that your cat’s metabolism is not wired correctly.

Moreover, it can signal an underlying disease, which can be anything from anemia to FIV, hyperthyroidism, feline leukemia, diabetes or other serious conditions. Your vet will give your cat a complete examination to determine why the pica syndrome is there. You will most likely have to change your cat’s diet to provide it with the nutrients it needs, but there may be other treatments it needs.

Until the pica is cured, you should be extremely careful what your cat eats. If it is in the habit of eating plastic bags, then do your best to remove all bags in its way. Eating plastic bags can be extremely dangerous because the cat may be unable to eliminate it. The bag might get stuck along the digestive tract because it is too large to pass through tighter areas and it might cause a blockage.

In this case, your cat will be unable to defecate, which is extremely dangerous. This is a medical emergency and if you think that this is the case for your cat, contact your veterinarian immediately because the blockage must be fixed surgically.

Leaving the pica syndrome aside, your cat can enjoy plastic bags safely! The experience is a sensory wonderland. While you see a cat swishing a bag, it is having the time of its life. From the silky-smooth texture to the wonderful smell of pseudo-pheromones to that of all the previous contents of the bag, and all the way to that tasty lanolin that the bag was treated with, or cornstarch if you’ve chosen a bio bag, there are so many reasons why plastic bags are absolutely irresistible to your cat.

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Plastic alternatives

If you struggle to keep your cat away from plastic bags – say you use plastic liners in a garbage can or a litter tray – they the best alternative is to make sure your cat is getting enough stimulation through other toys and chewable items to make them less interested in plastics.

Make sure your kitty is happy with their toys and enjoys playing with them, and consider some treat-based toys that your cat has to work to open as a way of keeping them engaged and offering a tasty snack too.

If you’re providing enough stimulation, including playing with your cat yourself and making sure they’ve got treats and toys when you aren’t at home, then make sure their plastic pursuit isn’t becoming an obsession. If it is, it’s worth making sure they get checked out by your veterinarian.

FAQs

Can a cat die from eating plastic?

While it may look like cute behavior, a cat can die if it eats plastic. That’s because plastic – and in particular plastic shopping bags – can cause intestinal blockages. If your cat’s intestines are blocked, they can’t defecate, which could be toxic.

It is an extremely serious emergency if your cat has eaten plastic bags, and the obstruction must be resolved surgically. Seek immediate attention from a veterinarian if your cat may have swallowed plastic shopping bags.

A much smaller risk could also be strangulation, if the bag is elasticated, although it would be very rare for a cat to get its head stuck in a tight plastic hole. It’s still worth making sure you treat plastic bags around your cat with care.

Why do cats lick plastic shopping bags?

Cats like to lick and chew plastic bags mainly because of the residual flavors of foods that have been left behind. However, lubricants used in making smooth plastic are also enticing for cats, and they might be enticed by those substances too.

Plastic bags are usually treated with stearates, which are chemical substances derived from tallow. Another option is lanolin, which is a natural compound found in sheep – lanolin is the substance that makes a sheep’s coat feel greasy. Lanolin is meant to keep the sheep’s coat dry.

It is extremely greasy and it keeps the water away from the sheep’s coat and skin.
As you can imagine, the smell of lanolin is extremely alluring for your small little predator carnivore.

It is very enticing, so your cat will be all over the bag, licking it, taunting it, like it would with its own prey. Another type of lubricant which is used to treat plastic bags is derived from gelatin, which also makes bags a tasty delight that is just right for the licking.

Is it bad for cats to lick plastic bags?

Generally, as long as your cat is not consuming the plastic, they should be OK to lick it. The amount of substances in plastic bags isn’t enough to be toxic to a cat just by them licking it. You need to watch them to make sure they don’t ingest it.

If your cat starts to bite into plastic bags and looks like they want to eat it, it could be a sign of pica and you should have them checked to make sure they don’t develop an eating disorder that could prove to be dangerous.

What about your cats? Do they love plastic bags? Do they lick them, stretch on them, cuddle them? Tell us all about your cat’s love story with its favorite bag in the comments section below.

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6 thoughts on “Why Do Cats Lick and Chew Plastic? – 9 Reasons for This Odd Behavior

  1. Debra says:

    I really think this is an important article to post regarding an unusual ragdoll behavior. One of my two cats is obsessed with several different types of plastics and also tissue paper and rubber bands. I have to be so diligent to throw out these materials immediately to avoid having him try to play with and also eat them. This includes the plastic tape used to close mailing boxes. He will pull it off a discarded box if not supervised. He also likes the very thin plastic wrappers, as well as thin foam sheets.
    He does know he is not allowed these items and with opportunity, he will steal them, and then hide, making a distinctive sound, which tells me he is up to something. I do my best to throw things away before we get to this point.
    It is definitely a problem and a big concern in caring for this beautiful ragdoll boy.
    I did not know he was eating these plastics until I moved and found a long strip of mailing tape plastic coming out of his anus. A frightening experience. Fortunately he passed the plastic without internal damage per vet.
    I’m so glad you have this site Jenny so we can share the unique differences of ragdoll behavior from other feline breeds.

  2. CB says:

    This is the most irresponsible article I’ve ever read. People, please be careful about letting your pets enjoy plastic bags. Unless you’re willing to hand one to your toddler unsupervised, then go ahead

    • Jenny says:

      It’s meant to be responsible – I guess it assumes that people would know better about allowing a cat to be unsupervised with a plastic bag – as you would a toddler, as you mentioned. If I am in the kitchen, putting away groceries and one of my cats starts playing with a plastic bag, I will allow it – but, of course, I remove the bag and put it away when I am not around. What disclaimer would you suggest to add to the post? Would that take care of your judgement?

  3. Cathy says:

    Thank you Jenny – I was curious about his because my cat always goes nuts for plastic bags and I never knew why until now! He absolutely rolls in it, plays with it, paws it and sits on it for hours and sleeps. He tends to mimic chewing it but never does. I always check on him and remove it after awhile and when I have to leave the house. I thought he had some weird fettish!

    Hugz & Purz,
    Cathy & Sebastian

  4. Patti Johnson says:

    WOW! SUPER PAWESOME & FABULOUS post, Jenny honey! Such a great topic! I never knew about this fascinating behavior (and the possible medical reason of cat pica…such a fascinating yet alarming condition for both cats and humans!)! Miss PSB has no interest in plastic bags other than peeping to see what’s inside them…lol. TYSVM for this very informative (and the super adorable Chiggy The Plasticbag-aholic footage & pics…such a sweet cutie patootie!) info! 🙂 <3

    Big hugs & lots of love & purrs!

    Patti & Miss Pink Sugarbelle 🙂 <3 <3 <3

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