Everything You Need to Know About Cat Licking

Some cats pretty much never seem to lick and other cats lick all the time. Cat lovers sometimes ask questions about why do cats lick and try to determine when cat licking is normal and when the licking is abnormal. Cat licking is a part of the normal maternal instinct and grooming behaviors, however, these behaviors can become excessive and abnormal.

The answer to the question if cat licking is abnormal depends on if the behavior is new, if the licking appears to be part of the normal grooming behaviors, or if the licking is associated with an underlying behavioral or medical problem.

First, let’s look at why cats lick.

Understanding Normal Cats Licking and Grooming

A normal healthy cat will lick to keep him/herself relatively clean. Most cats are fastidious and spend a significant amount of time grooming. The amount of time per day cats groom can vary substantially from cat to cat but studies suggest that cats spend approximately 15 percent of their time grooming.

  1. Cleaning. The primary reason cats lick themselves is to eliminate dirt, debris, and odors. In the wild, cats may kill their prey leaving blood and odors on their own fur. To protect themselves, cats groom to remove any odors that remain from killing their prey so they do not become prey to another animal. Cats may also want to remove other odors from their coat such as human odors. Some cats will grooms themselves immediately after you pet them to eliminate your scent and even out their own scent.
  2. Displacement behavior. Some cats will use grooming or licking as a displacement behavior. When some cats are stressed, they will cope by grooming (which gives them comfort). This displacement behavior helps cats cope with stress by lowering their arousal level. For example, if a cat is intimidated by another household animal, at some point during an encounter, the cat may stop and seemingly nonchalantly groom himself for several minutes. This behavior can turn into a compulsive disorder.
  3. Post birth grooming. After giving birth, the queen grooms herself to clear normal discharge and blood. This is an instinct to minimize odors that could attract prey.
  4. Maternal grooming. After birth, the queen immediately licks the kittens to remove the amniotic sacs from around their faces and bodies which also stimulates breathing. She will also chew through the umbilical cords and eat the placentas. This is completely normal behavior. Following birth and during the first several weeks of life, the queen will frequently lick her kittens. Licking their abdomens and anuses encourages the babies to eliminate waste (urinate and defecate). Kittens generally learn to start grooming themselves around 3 weeks of age. Often by 6 weeks of age, kittens are grooming themselves competently.
  5. Allogrooming. Once kittens have learned to groom themselves, they may begin to groom each other. This behavior is known as allogrooming. This is fairly common in cats that grow up together.
  6. Heat regulation. Licking the hair coat can help cats maintain their body temperature. During cold weather, cats may lick their fur to smooth it, which traps the air to keep them warm. During the summer months, cats may lick their fur, which evaporates and helps to keep them cool.
  7. They like it. Other cats lick…just because they like to. Some cats enjoy and find comfort in the sensation of licking.

Focused Licking

The biggest concern about cat licking is when it is excessive or focused on a particular area. Below is information on various causes of cat-licking behaviors that may be focused on one area or object.

Licking you

As kittens learn to groom themselves, they may also allogroom which means they lick and groom cats close to them. This behavior can extend to us, after all in many cases we are the kittens or cats surrogate parents, right? Learn more about Why Do Cats Lick You?

Licking lips

Licking lips or lip smacking in cats can be a sign of nausea. Some cats will lick their lips just prior to the act of vomiting. Lip licking in cats is a big concern if your cat is not eating, vomiting, and/or acting lethargic. Learn more about What it Means When Your Cat is Smacking Her Lips and Nausea in Cats.

Licking fur

Some cats will excessively lick their fur. This can be due to normal grooming procedures or be caused by parasite infestation such as fleas, from injuries such as bite wounds, or from skin infections.

Another reason cats may excessively lick an area is to comfort themselves. For example, if we hurt our wrist, we may rub it. Cats may lick at a wound or a sore area in an attempt to comfort that area. Sometimes the area may be a wound or it could be over an area that is painful. For example, some cats will excessively lick the fur on their abdomens over the location of the bladder when they have bladder pain and urinary problems or lick their carpus (wrist area) after an injury.

Physiologically, the licking may have some benefit in that it can increase circulation and aid wound healing. However, when the licking is excessive, it can create wounds and delay healing. Learn more about this – go to My Cat is Licking Her Fur Off, What Do I Do?

Licking genitals

One of the biggest concerns about cat licking is when it is a new behavior and involves excessive licking of the genital area. It is normal for cats to lick the genital area as part of the normal grooming process. However, excessive licking can be a concern because of life-threatening urinary problems that can affect cats. Cats with feline urinary obstructions or urinary tract infections may excessively lick their genitals and can be one of the first signs a cat owner notices. If you notice that your cat is excessively licking at the genital area, closely monitor for other signs of problems such as not eating or straining to urinate. Are the piles of urine in the litter box the same size or are they smaller? Smaller balls of urine in the litter box can be a sign of a problem. Any abnormalities should warrant an immediate visit to your veterinarian or closest veterinary emergency clinic.

Licking wounds

A common sign of a wound is a cat licking at a certain area. The most common type of wound is a bite wound or abscess. If you notice that your cat is focusing on and licking a certain area, look at that area to determine if there is an underlying problem. Sometimes it can be something minor like a small burr in their hair or a plant awn to something more serious like a wound or bite wound.

Licking plastic bags

Some cats will lick inanimate objects such as metal or plastic. This can be caused by something simple such as the juice on a lunch meat wrapper to a behavioral fetish. Learn more about the interesting reason Why is My Cat Licking Plastic?

When Cat Licking is Excessive

If your cat is licking particular areas and the behavior is new, examine that part of their body. Look for any signs of external parasites such as fleas or signs of infection such as redness, swelling, or discharge from the skin. Please call your veterinarian to have your cat examined if you notice a problem.

When Cats Quit Licking Equals a Problem

Normal healthy cats spend anywhere from 10 to 15 percent of their time grooming. Grooming is a good barometer of overall health. Cats that don’t feel well will often quit grooming. Some cat owners and veterinarians notice the lack of grooming at one of the first signs of a medical problem. The hair will often appear matted with dandruff.

What You Can Do About Cat Licking

If your cat is having normal grooming behaviors, let them be. If you believe it is abnormal, please see your veterinarian to determine the underlying problem.

Some cats enjoy being groomed. Brushing or combing your cat daily can enhance your bond and help avoid hair mats. Brushing your cat can also prevent them from ingesting hair and getting hairballs.

Additional Articles that May Be of Interest About Cat Licking

Why Do Cats Lick You? 
My Cat is Licking Her Fur Off, What Do I Do?
What it Means When Your Cat is Smacking Her Lips 
Why is My Cat Licking Plastic?
What is Pet Insurance?
How Does Pet Insurance Work?
When is the Best Time to Get Pet Insurance for Your Cat?
Questions To Ask When Choosing A New Vet
How to Have a Trauma-Free Veterinary Visit for Your Cat