Some cats like to lick or suckle on people and clothes. They often purr and, at the same time, knead with their paws, as though they’re nursing. Some cats even drool profusely as you pet them. If your cat does any of these things, you may find yourself wondering if these peculiar behaviors are normal. Persistently trying to nurse on your neck or chin or repetitively licking your arms, face or other bare-skinned areas may seem especially strange. You’re not alone. Many cats develop these oral habits. They’re comforting and reassuring—somewhat like thumb sucking is to a child—so it may be hard to discourage your cat from engaging in them.
Why Does Your Cat Do That?
There are many reasons why cats suckle or lick people excessively. Some experts believe that cats who do these things may have been orphaned or weaned too early. Ideally, kittens should stay with their mother and littermates until they’re at least six weeks old. Some studies suggest that it’s even better if kittens stay until seven to twelve weeks of age. If they’re taken from their mother and litter too early, kittens may show infantile behaviors as adults. Both suckling and licking fall into this category. Suckling and licking can also occur in response to stress, anxiety, illness or just plain boredom. For some cats, these habits simply serve as comfort behaviors to enjoy during periods of relaxation.
In rare cases, regardless of the original reason why a cat started the behavior, suckling or licking can develop into a compulsive disorder. How do you know if your cat has become compulsive about licking or suckling? A behavior is typically considered compulsive if a cat has trouble stopping, even when you try to distract him with another activity. Please see our article on Compulsive Behavior in Cats for more information.
If you have an older cat who has recently started suckling or licking you, you should have him examined by a veterinarian. Hyperthyroidism occurs in up to 30% of cats over 10 years of age, and can cause a variety of behavioral changes.
- If your cat’s suckling or licking is not so intense or frequent that it bothers you, it’s fine to simply accept and enjoy your cat’s affectionate behavior during your quiet times together.
- One relatively benign type of punishment involves taking away what your cat wants the moment he starts to perform an undesired behavior. Simply get up and walk away each and every time he tries to lick or suckle on you. Don’t be so abrupt that you knock him to the floor or scare him. Just disengage from him, lift him off of your lap if necessary, and leave the room. You may need to keep this up for several weeks or months before you notice a reduction in the behavior. For this strategy to be effective, you’ll need to act quickly and consistently every time your cat tries to lick or suckle. You can’t allow him to do it at certain times but not others. Your inconsistent response will confuse him, and he won’t stop trying to engage in the comforting behavior.
- For maximum effectiveness, combine the method above with efforts to establish more acceptable interactions and fun with you. Depending on your cat’s personality, you might get a toy and play with him or distract him with tasty treats whenever he tries to suckle or lick you.
- Does your cat’s suckling or licking seem to increase whenever he hasn’t been getting enough attention or mental stimulation? Enriching your cat’s life with more activity and play can be quite effective in reducing the intensity and frequency of unwanted behaviors. It may even eliminate suckling or licking altogether. Five to 10 minutes of exercise once or twice a day can reduce anxiety and burn calories. Play games with your cat using a feather wand, a laser light or other objects that he can “hunt.” Cat videos, bird feeders outside a window, cat grass for chewing, vertical cat furniture “trees” or “condos” for climbing, and shelf perches on windows are just a few ways to keep your cat active and entertained. Please see our articles on Cat Toys and Enriching Your Cat’s Life for more playtime ideas.
- Another option is to provide your cat with an acceptable object to chew or suckle instead of you. Some cats enjoy chewing pieces of thin rawhide lightly coated with fish oil or cheese spread. Others prefer chewing on raw chicken wings. (Make sure they’re raw—cooked bones can splinter and choke or injure your cat.) Only give your cat rawhide or chicken wings when you’re able to supervise him. Once you discover what he really likes, keep a supply of it handy, and each time your cat tries to suckle or lick you, quickly redirect his attention to the chew or bone. Providing cat grass, lettuce or catnip to nibble on may also give your cat an acceptable outlet for his suckling or licking behavior.
- If you think your cat’s suckling or licking is related to stress or anxiety, try to identify what might be provoking it. Does suckling or licking happen more often after you have visitors over? What about when your other cat is nearby, when your dog gets loud and rambunctious or when family members argue? Other common situations that produce anxiety in cats include excessive confinement, the addition or loss of other family pets, social isolation or crowding (too many animals for the available space), unpredictable daily routines, punishment and social conflicts between family pets. Once you’ve identified some pattern or predictable triggers for your cat’s suckling or licking behavior, your goal is to either eliminate the stressor or help your cat find another way to cope. For example, if visitors make him nervous, give him a safe place to hide when strangers come to your home. If it’s another cat or a dog that upsets your cat, make sure he has objects to hide under or high places on which to perch when he wants to be left alone. Please see our articles on Fear of Visitors and Aggression Between Cats in Your Household for more information about these problems.
- Try making yourself or your clothing unappealing. Products that are formulated to keep cats from licking or chewing include Grannick’s Bitter Apple® and Veterinarian’s Best® Bitter Cherry Spray. Some cats dislike citrus smells, so lemon oil or a citrus-scented hand lotion may deter your cat from licking your skin. (If your cat isn’t deterred, be sure to wash the oil or lotion off so he doesn’t ingest it.) Please see our article on Using Taste Deterrents for more information.
What NOT to Do
Avoid swatting, pushing or yelling at your cat when he tries to suckle or lick you. Because this behavior may be caused by stress, punishment is neither the kindest nor the most effective way to respond. You’ll just add to your cat’s stress, make him afraid of you and possibly intensify the unwanted behavior.
When to Get Help
If your cat’s licking or suckling significantly interferes with his quality of life—or yours—consult a qualified expert, such as a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or Associate CAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB). A behaviorist can help you determine what triggers your cat’s behavior and design a plan to resolve the problem. Please see our article on Finding Professional Help to locate a behaviorist in your area.