Vet weighs in on why you shouldn’t let your cat play with yarn (and what to give them instead)

Russian blue cat tangled up in yellow yarn looking up at the camera
(Image credit: Getty Images/Westend61)

If your cat plays with yarn, then you'll want to keep it out of paw's reach from now on. We're not surprised that our feline friends love it so much — it's dangly, colorful, and moves unpredictably, making it irresistible to chase after. 

Whilst it looks like the perfect teaser toy on paper, our vet warns that it can be very dangerous and lead to fatal illnesses. If you suspect your cat has ingested it, you should call a vet immediately. When it comes to playtime, you're better off giving them one of the best cat toys instead.

Yarn might be cheap and entertaining for your cat, but it will result in an unwanted vet visit in the long run. The best interactive cat toys don't need to cost the earth; you can find great quality options for under $10.

If you've let your cat play with yarn, don't be too hard on yourself — it's a common mistake that lots of pet parents make, so we've called in expert vet Dr. Rebecca MacMillan to answer some of your questions and concerns:

Is it safe to let my cat play with yarn?

Is it safe for my cat to play with yarn? Sadly, the answer is no, according to Dr. MacMillan. While it might be fun to play with, it can cause a variety of health problems — and some can be fatal.

She explains: "If the yarn becomes unraveled during play, your cat could chew and swallow it which may lead to serious problems. Choking is one possible outcome, as is the chance of a linear foreign body developing.

"This occurs when a string or thread is consumed and becomes anchored at one end – either around the base of the tongue, in the stomach, or somewhere in the intestines. The free end continues to pass through the digestive tract by the rhythmic movements of the intestines. 

"These same movements cause the intestines to bunch up around the long, stationary thread. The thread then starts to slowly slice through the wall of the intestines leading to [holes] and the leaking of partially digested food."

She warns that if it's left untreated, it can cause peritonitis (a fatal infection in the abdomen), as well as severe intestine damage. 

Ginger and white cat looking at a ball of yarn

(Image credit: Getty Images/milanvirijevic)

How do I know if my cat has eaten yarn?

If you suspect that your cat has eaten yarn, these are the signs to look out for. However, it's important to call your vet immediately, regardless of their symptoms.

1. Choking

Choking, gagging, retching, excessive drooling, and pawing at the mouth are all signs that your cat has eaten yarn. This happens when the textured thread gets caught in the barbs on their tongue or is wrapped around the base of their tongue. 

2. Vomiting, diarrhea, reduced appetite, and abdominal pain

Your cat might experience vomiting, diarrhea, a reduced appetite, and abdominal pain if the yarn is causing issues further down in the digestive system.

3. Fever, lethargy, collapsing

If your cat has a fever, lethargy, or has collapsed, it could be a sign that they have an infected abdomen (peritonitis). This might happen if the yarn has caused a linear foreign body and the intestines are getting severely damaged.

Black and white kitten eating a ball of blue yarn

(Image credit: Getty Images/Lorraine Barnard)

What should I do if my cat has eaten yarn?

If your cat has eaten yarn (or you're suspicious that they have), talk to your vet as soon as possible as they might be able to intervene before any damage is done.

Dr. MacMillan says: "In some cases, vomiting may be induced to bring the string back up, but in other cases, it might need to be retrieved through endoscopy (passing a small camera with forceps into your cat’s stomach). Either of these is a better outcome for your cat than emergency surgery for a well-established linear foreign body, which may involve the removal of damaged intestines."

Vet examining cat

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Why do cats like to play with yarn?

According to Dr. MacMillan, cats love the way that yarn moves when they play with it. The unpredictable ball and the dangling string is an exciting combination that grabs their attention and activates their natural hunting instincts. She also adds that they love the texture, which is perfect for scratching and digging their claws into.

Cat play is super important for their health and happiness, which is why experts recommend two to three sessions a day lasting 15 to 20 minutes. Once you've stocked up on the best catnip toys, they'll forget all about their old yarn ball!

Frisco Fabric Teaser Wand Cat Toy

Frisco Fabric Teaser Wand Cat Toy

$5.10 at Chewy

This teaser toy is the perfect substitute for yarn, thanks to the enticing ribbon. Our tester said her cats love pouncing after it and that it's very durable. Not only will this keep your cat active, but it will strengthen your bond together. We voted it as the best cat toy overall in our buying guide.

White and grey kitten chasing after a red ball of yarn

(Image credit: Getty Images/loops7)

What other household items are dangerous for cats to play with?

Whilst we can't protect our fur babies from everything, it's important that we're aware of the potential dangers. Dr. MacMillan says that cats are often fascinated by elastic bands and hair bands too, which can make them unwell if they're ingested.

She also warns that some household plants and flowers can cause them health problems. However, this doesn't mean you need to avoid them altogether because there are some cat-friendly house plants you could swap over to instead.

She adds: "You should take care to keep any open flames away from your cat too. Burning candles can be attractive to inquisitive pets, leading to burns and hot wax becoming stuck in their fur – I have definitely seen a case or two of this during my time in practice!"

If you want to learn how to play with a cat, this expert's guide is a good place to start. Are you wondering, 'Can cats play fetch?' or why do cats eat hair? The answers will probably surprise you.

Megan Milstead
Staff Writer

Megan is a Staff Writer on PetsRader, covering news, features and buying guides. She has a wealth of experience looking after animals, having grown up with dogs, cats and horses all of her life. She’s particularly interested in pet happiness and behavior, which she loves to research in her spare time. You’ll often find her watching webinars on reactivity in dogs or researching cat body language. She loves going the extra mile for her cats Chilli and Nala (who also help out with testing the best products for our buying guides). 

Megan studied BA Journalism at the University of Westminster, where she specialized in lifestyle journalism and was editor of Smoke Radio’s online magazine. She also graduated from West Herts College with a Level 3 Extended Diploma in Journalism. Before joining the PetsRadar family last year, she worked on the editorial team at Harrods and has spent most of her career writing for specialized titles, like RunningShoesGuru, Licklist and Mr. After Party. 

Megan works alongside qualified vets and accredited trainers to ensure you get the best advice possible. She is passionate about finding accurate and helpful answers to your pet-related questions.