Help! My cat is licking ash out of the fireplace!

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Has your cat developed a strange habit? There can be all sorts of reasons behind a cat's behaviour, our expert explains.

(Q) Why does my cat lick ash out of the fireplace?

(A) Vet Elsie Robertson says: The behaviour your cat is exhibiting is not considered normal. Some younger cats acquire a habit of licking strange objects, a habit called 'pica', but it does not necessarily indicate an underlying health condition.

There are many possible reasons for pica behaviour, including deficiencies in the diet. Some vets and behaviourists believe that inadequate amounts of certain nutrients in a diet can cause a cat to crave these nutrients from non-edible sources. Some anaemic cats may also try to eat cat litter.

Boredom or stress can also be a contributing factor - cats who are living in a stressful environment may try to soothe themselves by engaging in pica behaviour.

A bored cat who is not receiving adequate mental and physical stimulation may engage in wool sucking, or eating plastic bags and other non-food items.

However, there may be underlying medical problems - certain diseases or brain disorders may be associated with pica behaviour. But it's also in some cats' genetics - some Oriental breeds are predisposed to wool sucking behaviour and that can advance to full-blown pica.

An older cat that has suddenly developed an affinity for licking strange objects, in my opinion, is showing symptoms of a potentially more serious health issue. The most common reason would be a nutritional deficiency that is causing a lack of some important element in the cat's diet. A primary liver condition, anaemia, or central nervous system issue (eg a brain lesion) may be a cause of this behavioural change. In any case, I would recommend a visit to your vet so they can do a full examination and perform a blood test.