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Felinexpress.com Home > Cat Behavior > Cats and Plastic Bags

Cats and Plastic Bags

Plastic garbage bags filled with empty, recyclable soda cans lean against the garage door. Elliot, the barn cat saunters up to the pile for a sniff. His Jacobson Organ, located on the base of his nasal cavity hits overdrive. The Jacobsen Organ is connected to the part of the cat’s brain controlling sexual and feeding behavior.  Elliott displays a “Flehman Response” (a cat grimace). Turning, he raises his tail, his rump quivering, shooting a fine spray of cat urine saturating the bags.  Having declared his ownership over the intruders, he moves off.

What attracts cats to plastic bags? Many cat lovers relate amusing, sometimes harrowing stories about their cat’s encounters with plastic.  Theories abound about the reasons behind the behavior of the cat after exposure; licking, chewing, or spraying. Some speculations offered are that animal products are used in making plastic bags; i.e., tallow which is rendered beef fat, fish oil to produce the slick finish, or fish scales to prevent the bags from sticking together. Nothing could be further from the truth.

According to Arlene Stafford, Consumer Affairs Representative of the Pactiv Corporation (makers of Hefty bags)

"Dioxins are in no way associated with any Pactiv products.  They are not used in our products' formulations, and they are not generated as by-products of our products' normal household use.

DEHA stands for Di-2-ethylhexyl adipate.  DEHA is not employed in Pactiv Products' formulations.

Our bags are made out of polyethylene with a certain amount of carbon.”

Dr. William F. Carroll Jr., of the Occidental Chemical Corporation has this to say about the possibility of carbon being the attractant.  

“First, regarding ‘carbon.’  There is organic carbon--carbon bound to itself, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen (generally)--which is the stuff that we and virtually everything else is made of.  Polyethylene bags are organic carbon--and chemically they are made of just carbon and hydrogen, like candle wax.  In fact, a garbage bag is chemically equivalent to candle wax and mineral spirits, but the molecules are longer--like long strings instead of short pieces of string (paraffin) or small balls (mineral spirits).  The molecule length gives each of those compounds different physical properties.
I doubt that carbon, per se, is the answer.  If cats are attracted to plastic bags there can be very low concentration materials that cats smell and we do not that could be somehow part of the bag making process.  Those compounds, like all other odors, are organic carbon compounds.” 

Linda Kay Hardie, author of Louie Larkey and the Bad Dream Patrol has had several plastic bag encounters with her cats over the years.  One of her cats, a fawn Abyssinian by the name of Sydney, loved to lick plastic shopping bags. “At first, I thought it was the cornstarch they used to separate the bags. But cornstarch was used only for a short period of times by a few bag vendors.” Sydney loved all plastic grocery bags, but she left the other plastic bags alone. “If I didn’t stop her from licking the bags, she would progress to chewing them. I learned to put the bags away ASAP. I didn’t want to be rushing her to the vet because her tummy was full of baggie. I used these bags in lidded wastebaskets for clumping litter. Sydney would go up to the wastebasket and nibble on the handles protruding out the sides. When I went to tie the handles together and throw out the used litter, the bag handles would be all sticky from cat spit.”

Marilyn Beecher’s cat Riley was fascinated by plastic bags. Marilyn had to put away her empty bags immediately after shopping. One afternoon, she left an empty plastic bag on the kitchen floor. Riley crept into the bag catching  his head around the handles. Startled, he took off, running up the stairs, the white grocery bag flapping wildly behind him. It took Marilyn several minutes to corral Riley into a corner and free him.  “He could have really hurt himself. Now, I make sure that I cut the handles of the bags before I even put groceries away!”  But, to this day, the love affair with plastic bags continues. Riley will even sit by the cabinet where the empty bags are stored and mew. “It just amazes me,” Marilyn says. “He doesn’t even show this much interest in catnip toys!”

Although some cats’ addiction to plastic items can be considered cute or charming by some, plastic bags and cats should never meet. Plastic bags are not radio-dense, meaning detectable by x-ray. Only an ultrasound can locate a plastic obstruction. Once the plastic enters the alimentary tract, this can cause  a major obstruction for kitty.

The symptoms of possible obstruction:

  • Vomiting
  • Regurgitation
  • Abdominal pain
  • Loss of Appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Inability to pass waste

To safeguard your cat, keep all plastic items away from him. Childproof locks are ideal to stop curious cat paws from opening cabinets and cupboards.  Cut away the handles of any plastic bags or store them outside in a separate container. Many grocery stores will recycle these bags, a better option than throwing them away, as plastic bags in landfills also pose the same  grave danger to wildlife as they do to cats.

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