A Moment of Science

Cats And strings

Most cats and kittens love to play with string, but if a feline begins to swallow string, it could become a deadly game.

cat with ball of string

Photo: toby-won-kenobi (flickr)

While it may look like a cute game, researchers now know it is actually dangerous for cats to play with string.

If you’re a cat owner, you might have witnessed a bizarre fact about cat behavior: once a cat begins eating a bit of string, it continues swallowing it until it has swallowed the entire string, even though it would be safer and simpler if the cat coughed it up.

The Swallowing Mechanism

Veterinary scientists aren’t completely certain why this happens, but they know it has to do with the swallowing mechanism in the cat’s throat and esophagus.

For cats, swallowing is an automatic response to having food or other substances in their mouths. A reflex in the front of the mouth pushes food to the back of the throat.

Once the nerve endings in the back of the throat get stimulated, they automatically cause the cat to swallow, sending the substance down the esophagus.

When a bit of string reaches the back of the throat, the cat has no control over this swallowing mechanism, and the string continues to make its way down the one-way street of the cat’s esophagus.

A Dangerous Game

While this reflex may help a cat hold onto struggling prey in the wild, it can cause the cat harm if what’s in its mouth isn’t food. Swallowed string can get lodged in the cat’s intestines and cause severe vomiting, appetite loss, rapid dehydration, and listlessness.

If one end of the string is caught around a cat’s tongue, it is very important that the cat’s owner never try to pull the string up through the cat’s mouth. Doing this might cause the string to cut open the intestines and possibly kill the cat. Instead, your vet can decide if surgery is needed to remove the string.

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