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Behaviourist's Corner

6 things licking tells you about your cat


Cats are usually brilliant at keeping themselves clean on a daily basis, but if your cat starts to lick and wash more frequently, there may be something more to it than super-clean habits. Inga MacKellar, our clinical animal behaviourist, explains what the different kinds of cat licking mean.


1. Building bonds with her owner

Your cat may lick you when she’s feeling happy, relaxed and affectionate towards you. It’s all part of the grooming behaviour learnt as a kitten when snuggled up with her mother and siblings – this is called allogrooming. When cats are part of a social group, they lick each other around the ears and face as a way of bonding. One theory is that when a cat is nestled in their owner’s arms it feels similar to cuddling up to its mother. That’s why she may feel extra relaxed and eager to bond by licking you. Cats are also very scent-oriented so not only does she know you and your voice, your smell is reassuringly familiar.

2. Licking lips could be a sign of oral disease

The most common reason cats lick their lips is to clean them after eating or drinking. However, if your cat licks her lips frequently regardless of whether she has been at her food or water bowl, she may have problems with her teeth or gums, and needs to see a vet. Cats often drool when their facial muscles relax when they’re contentedly purring or kneading with their paws. Excessive drooling, called hypersalivation, needs to be investigated by your vet as it can be a symptom of several conditions, including trouble with her teeth and gums. Older cats can be more prone to problems with their oral health. Also, if your cat suddenly starts streaming with drool, they may have eaten something poisonous, so you’ll need to take your pet to the vet as soon as possible.

3. Nibbling to soothe the itch

Cats lick, nibble and bite at their fur and skin not only to keep clean, but to remove dead hair, dead skin cells and parasites. The tiny backward spikes on their tongue act like a comb. Fleas or bites from other parasites are common, and some cats are more sensitive to them than others. Your cat will lick and bite herself to try to relieve the irritation, but the more she licks the more irritated her skin may become. If you’re unsure whether your cat has fleas try standing her on a large sheet of white paper and combing her with a very fine flea comb. If tiny black dots (flea dirt) stick on the comb, or drop onto the paper, she probably has fleas and needs vet treatment to get rid of them. Some cats’ skin can also become irritated and sore by mites found in grass.

4. Pain can be the cause

A cat that starts repeatedly licking or biting at a specific part of her body may be trying to soothe a pain that needs investigating by your vet. If she’s concentrating on her inner back thighs and belly and possibly urinating in her litter tray more frequently, she may have cystitis. Clawing at her mouth in an exaggerated manner suggests she’s probably trying to relieve some kind of discomfort or pain and needs her dental health checked. Worms and blocked or infected anal glands can make her bottom very itchy, and she might lick and chew in an attempt to stop such an unpleasant sensation. If your cat is repeatedly nibbling and licking at a paw, check she’s not attending to a wound such as a thorn or a cut.

5. When licking becomes excessive grooming

The amount a cat grooms varies from cat to cat, but they are meticulously clean animals and regularly wash after a meal or when resting. Your cat may also wash herself more in hot weather as cats only have sweat glands in their paws, and the saliva on their fur can help to cool them down. Over grooming is when your cat is constantly licking herself, particularly in one area, sometimes causing bald patches or soreness. This behaviour may be her way of coping with stress and licking herself repeatedly and vigorously releases the soothing feel-good endorphins that help calm her. In extreme cases of over grooming she may chew at her fur, leaving sore red patches. The first thing to do is watch her closely to see if you can find the cause.

6. Finding the triggers for over grooming

Start keeping a diary to work out if there’s a pattern of when the over grooming is happening, the part of her body she’s grooming, and the possible external triggers. Is it when someone noisy comes into the house, or when she sees something through the window? You can help by working on ways to distract or soothe her when she starts to over groom, like a fishing rod game or some other form of cat fun play therapy. Pheromone plugs in the rooms she spends most time in can be helpful as they replicate a cat’s facial ‘friendly’ pheromones. If there’s no obvious external trigger, take her to the vet for a check-up as it may be pain-related. Your vet may not find a physical cause for the over grooming, in which case, get a referral to see a professional cat behaviourist. If your cat stops grooming this may also be a sign of stress or pain so consult your vet. For older cats that suffer from arthritis, grooming can become difficult.


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