Photograph by Marc Moritsch
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Domestic cats have their share of quirky behaviors.

Photograph by Marc Moritsch

Why Cats Lick Plastic, and Other Odd Behaviors Explained

Experts weigh in on feline grooming, zooming, and a strange fetish.

It’s official: Even presidential candidates need a cat GIF to get through the day sometimes.

Americans love their kitties—all 96 million of them—and to help out their doting owners, Weird Animal Question of the Week is looking into strange cat behavior, also known as cat behavior. (Related: "What Is Your Cat Trying to Tell You? Vets Weigh In.")

Plastic Is His Bag

Catarina Dias doesn’t have to ask her cat “paper or plastic?”

She already knows he likes licking the plastic bag lining her trash can, and she’s keen to find out why.

Nicholas Dodman, a veterinary behaviorist at Tufts University, says it’s likely a mild version of a compulsive disorder called wool sucking, which isn’t just about wool.

Cats with this condition lick or suck on plastic, including shower curtains or shoelaces. It’s often linked to pica, “the indiscriminate eating of inedible objects,” says Dodman, author of Pets on the Couch.

Watch: Skiing With Adorable Adventure Cat Jesperpus WATCH: An energetic cat named Jesperpus hits the trails with his two-legged friend Aina Stormo in Norway.

Licking plastic bags is a "texture-specific eating disorder,” meaning the cats just like that texture, he adds. It’s not dangerous—unless the cat is ingesting the plastic, which can lead to intestinal blockages. (See National Geographic readers' pictures of cats.)

Cat Mats

Laura’s orange tabby grows a two-inch-long winter coat but doesn’t shed. Instead, the feline tends to pull his fur out with his teeth in spring, sometimes leaving bare patches. The fur then grows back short and smooth, getting longer in winter.

"I've mentioned this to other people, and most say this is very unusual. What do you say!?"

Some cats do engage in stress-induced hair-pulling, but the seasonal nature of this cat's behavior suggests an allergy, Dodman says. The best course of action is to take the animal to the vet to get checked out, he suggests. (Related: "What Do Cats Think About Us? You May Be Surprised.")

Long-haired cats often get mats from their winter coats, which can get itchy come spring, adds John Bradshaw of the U.K.'s University of Bristol and author of The Trainable Cat.

The pets sometimes “will try to shift the [mats] with their teeth,” which can leave bald patches.

The Young and the Restless

Katelynn Davis’s foundling cat, rescued from behind a restaurant, used to sleep on her shoulder. Now, at two years old, he has what's sometimes called the “zoomies,” randomly darting around the house and meowing constantly, often while sitting by the door.

"It's frustrating; I love him and I want what is best for him, but I'm not sure what to do anymore," Davis tells us.

How’s a cat mom to calm her baby?

For one, understanding their background helps: Kittens that grow up without their mothers, as Davis's cat may have, often behave abnormally, Bradshaw says. (Related: "Ask Your Weird Animal Questions: The Truth About Your Cats.")

Likewise cats that lived outdoors as kittens likely feel claustrophobic as adult indoor cats, another reason for the erratic behavior, says Dodman.

The zoomies are also a sign that a cat isn’t getting enough aerobic exercise, Dodman explains. The natural pattern of cats, big and small, is to “sleep or nap and then have sudden bursts of activity. That’s how they hunt,” he says.

Those bursts come randomly if they don’t get enough physical activity.

Getting the cat to play with store-bought or DIY toys, with you or on his own, will help. Zoomies you control will minimize the zoomies you don’t.

Nod tiredly if you’ve ever had a cat jump on you at 4 a.m. and run across you like a bridge.

Weird Animal Question of the Week answers your questions every Saturday. If you have a question about the weird and wild animal world, tweet me, leave me a note or photo in the comments below, or find me on Facebook.