4 reasons why cats lick themselves

Article expert
Approved by

Nicky Trevorrow

Cats Protection
Approved/Reviewed by

Brian Faulkner

Veterinary Surgeon
RCVS Registered

Cats naturally spend a lot of time grooming themselves, but sometimes their licking is down to more than just staying clean. Find out the four main reasons why cats lick themselves, plus how to tell if your cat is overgrooming.

Cats are usually brilliant at keeping themselves clean on a daily basis, but if you notice your cat licking themselves more frequently, there may be more to it than cleanliness alone.

Why do cats lick themselves?

1. Building bonds

Cats lick themselves, and their owners, when they’re feeling relaxed, happy and affectionate. This type of grooming behaviour is known as ‘allogrooming’, something that kittens learn when they’re young and snuggled up with their mother and siblings. When cats live within a social group they’ll often lick each other around the ears and face as a way of bonding. When cats sit in our laps or are cuddled in our arms, they can feel relaxed enough to lick us, again as a way of bonding. Cats are also very scent-oriented, so not only do they recognise their owners’ voices, they also find our scent reassuringly familiar.

2. Soothing an itch

Cats lick, nibble and bite at their hair as part of the natural grooming process to remove moulting hair, dead skin cells and parasites. The tiny backward spikes on their tongue act like a comb to lift out dirt. But irritation and bites from fleas, mites and other parasites can cause an itch that your cat may try to soothe by biting or licking the area. Over time, this can cause additional irritation as your cat’s skin can become red and inflamed. If you suspect your cat has fleas, look for tiny black dots in their fur. If these turn a red-brown colour when placed on a piece of damp kitchen towel, this is flea dirt and a sure sign your cat needs flea medication.

3. Oral problems

Cats often lick their lips after eating or drinking, as a way of cleaning their mouths. But if you notice your cat licking their lips more often, regardless of whether they’ve been at their food or water bowl, it could be a sign of a dental issue. Cats often drool a little while they’re relaxed, but excessive drooling, or hypersalivation, can be a sign of conditions affecting your cat’s teeth and gums. Another sign that a cat may have an oral problem is that they make a grinding noise when they eat, or favour one side of the mouth only when eating. Senior cats also usually need more frequent dental check-ups than younger cats. Excessive drooling can be a sign your cat’s eaten something poisonous, and if you suspect that’s the case, make an urgent appointment with your vet.

4. Pain relief

Cats are very good at hiding their pain, but will sometimes repeatedly lick or bite a specific part of their body in an attempt to soothe pain. If they concentrate on licking their inner thighs and belly, this can be a sign of a urinary infection, particularly if they also make more frequent trips to the litter tray. Clawing at their mouth could be a sign of dental pain, while worms or blocked anal glands can cause a cat to lick and chew their behind more than normal. Repeatedly nibbling or licking a paw could be down to a wound from a thorn or cut. If you suspect your cat is in pain it’s always best to get them checked out by your vet. In older cats, pain from arthritis may also cause your cat to lick themself, but they may find it harder to reach specific parts of their body, too.

Why is my cat overgrooming?

Cats are fastidious groomers, but sometimes this develops into an excessive grooming habit. Cats usually groom themselves after a meal or before they settle down for a nap. They’ll also groom themselves more in hot weather, as this can have a cooling effect when the damp saliva evaporates. But if your cat is constantly licking themselves, particularly in one area, this can be a sign of excessive grooming.

A cat’s excessive grooming can be a sign of stress or anxiety, as well as of abdominal pain (for example, cystitis). It could also be a sign of a chronic mild itch, due to a skin allergy. Vigorous grooming can cause the release of the ‘feel-good’ hormone endorphin, which may help your cat feel calmer. Repetitive trauma to the skin from the cat’s coarse tongue breaks the hair shafts and results in baldness, which can sometimes be extensive. In extreme cases of overgrooming, cats may chew or pull at their fur, leaving patches of red and sore skin.

Finding the triggers for overgrooming

If you suspect your cat is overgrooming, it’s best to speak to your vet. Ask your vet to rule out any possible medical causes, such as pain, parasites, skin disease or allergies.

If your vet rules out medical reasons for overgrooming and feels that the cause is likely to be behavioural, then consider working work with a qualified cat behaviourist to discover any underlying reasons for your cat’s excessive grooming.

The behaviourist will probably ask if you’ve been able to identify any reasons or patterns behind your cat’s overgrooming behaviour. So, it’s a good idea to keep a diary of how often your cat grooms excessively. Does it happen when someone noisy visits the house, or when they see something through the window? Keeping a record can help the behaviourist to create a tailored behaviour modification plan to help your cat.

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