Everything You Need to Know About Cat Licking

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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.

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