Licking of Genital Area in Cats
Cats are fastidious and spend a significant amount of time on personal hygiene. In addition to cleaning their legs and body, cats will also lick their genital areas in an attempt to remove dirt, discharge, and debris as a part of their normal behavior. According to Dr. Nicholas Dodman, behaviorist at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, “cats spend approximately 8 to 15% of their waking time grooming themselves. This important maintenance behavior can serve as a barometer of a cat’s well-being.”
Grooming excessively, also referred to as overgrooming, can be caused by a variety of behavioral, parasitic, or allergic medical disorders. On the other hand, undergrooming (grooming less than normal) can indicate that a cat doesn’t feel well and can be the first obvious sign of an underlying systemic disease.
While some licking is normal, excessive licking in the genital area may indicate a medical problem. Because of the close proximity of the genital and rectal areas, one issue many cat owners have is accurately determining where exactly on the body a cat is licking. Licking of the anal area can be caused by parasites or anal gland problems, and licking near the genitals can be triggered by pain, bite wounds, fleas, skin infections, and various other issues.
Possible Causes of Excessive Genital Licking in Cats
Causes for licking of the genital area in cats include pain, inflammation, problems with the urinary or reproductive tracts, and abnormal discharge.
The presence of genital discharge most often suggests an underlying problem, ranging from a mild, relatively benign disorder, to a severe, even life-threatening, disease. The causes of discharge can be different in male and female cats, and are as follows:
- In male cats, abnormal preputial discharge is any substance emanating (flowing) from the prepuce (the fold of skin that covers the penis) that causes excessive licking. Preputial discharge may consist of blood, urine, or pus. A normal cat should have no discharge, however, a small amount of whitish-yellow “smegma” can accumulate around the preputial opening, and is not considered clinically significant.
- In female cats, abnormal vaginal discharge can result in excessive licking. Vaginal discharge is any substance emanating from the vulvar labia (the external female genitals). Vaginal discharge may be normal in the postpartum (after birth) period, sometimes lasting 6 to 8 weeks.
Conditions that cause excessive licking of the genital area include:
Abscesses are common in cats secondary to bite wounds. They occur on the rear of the cat near the base of the tail, over the hips, or near the genital area.
Anal gland problems
The anal glands are roughly the size of a pea and located on each side of the rectum. They function to mark territory, but can become impacted or infected. Common symptoms of anal gland disease include a foul odor, swelling near or just below and lateral to the rectum, pain, and/or licking or attempts to lick near the area.
Also known as urolithiasis, bladder stones can develop anywhere in the urinary tract including the kidneys, ureter, or bladder. They can become lodged as they try to exit the urinary tract, causing pain. The pressure of the stone, pain, or secondary infections can all cause excessive licking of the genital area.
Inflammation or infections of the skin can cause lesions anywhere on the body, including near the genital area.
Disorders affecting the prepuce
Disorders like neoplasia (cancer), trauma, foreign bodies, or balanoposthitis (inflammation of the penis/prepuce) can cause problems in male cats.
FIC affects 1% of all cats. Also known as feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD), feline urologic syndrome (FUS), and painful bladder syndrome (PBS), this disorder results in inflammation of the lower urinary tract. The end result includes accumulation of debris and crystals that may aggregate, causing discomfort and sometimes a painful plug that leads to blockage.
Urinary obstruction is a life-threatening condition that involves a blockage in the urinary tract. It commonly develops in the urethra (the tube that takes urine from the bladder) in male cats. Untreated, most cats will die in 72 hours. A feline urinary obstruction is the most common and serious cause of excessive licking of the genital area. The blockage can be caused by stones or as part of the syndrome known as feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC).
Excessive grooming occurs when a cat habitually licks for a variety of reasons, including behavioral problems.
The medical term for itching, this condition can occur in any area of the body for a variety of reasons. Common causes include allergic skin problems and fleas.
This infection of the uterus causes pain and may lead to pus draining from the vagina. It can be life-threatening and requires surgical removal of the uterus.
Although fairly uncommon in cats, the organ that unites the fetus with the lining of the uterus can be retained and eventually cause pain, discomfort, and discharge.
This is the inability to hold urine and can occur secondary to an ectopic (abnormally placed) ureter or problem with the sphincter (the tissue that acts like a door, controlling the release of urine). Excessive discharge can lead to licking.
Urinary tract infections
Also known as cystitis, these infections cause inflammation, discharge, and licking.
Urinary tract tumors
Urinary tract tumors can develop anywhere, including the urinary tract, urethra, and bladder. Symptoms may include recurrent urinary tract infections, blood in the urine, straining to urinate, and frequent urination.
Vaginal neoplasia (cancer)
Although uncommon in cats, this condition can cause excessive licking.
Inflammation of the vagina is sometimes seen in cats less than one year of age and can resolve after the first heat cycle.
What to Watch For
A cat may demonstrate the following abnormal signs:
- Excessive licking
- Spotting on bedding, carpet, or any surface
- Discharge coming from the genital area
- Swelling of the genital area
- Scooting behavior (dragging the bottom across the floor)
- Abnormal urinary behaviors, such as straining in the litter box, small and frequent urinations, or urinating outside of the litter box
- Parasitic infection
- Swelling or inflammation associated with the prepuce/penis or vulva
- Systemic signs of problems, such as lethargy, fever, lack of appetite, vomiting, or diarrhea
Diagnosis of Excessive Licking of the Genital Area in Cats
It is important for your veterinarian to perform a complete physical examination, including a thorough genital examination and abdominal palpation. In addition, your veterinarian may recommend the following diagnostic tests:
- A complete blood count (CBC), biochemical profile, and urinalysis are recommended. Although often within normal limits, there may be evidence of infection or inflammation.
- A bacterial urine culture will check for a urinary tract infection and determine which organism is causing the problem.
- Sensitivity testing may be recommended to determine which antibiotic will work best to fight the bacteria.
- Cytology (cells obtained from the discharge) can help evaluate for inflammation, infections, or cancer.
- Abdominal radiographs (X-rays) can evaluate for the presence of bladder stones, pyometra (infected uterus), tumors, retained kittens in females, or prostate abnormalities in males.
- Abdominal ultrasound is helpful to provide a more thorough evaluation of the abdominal structures, including the urinary and reproductive tracts.
- A coagulation profile may be helpful in cases of bloody discharge, and/or if a clotting problem is suspected.
Treatment of Excessive Genital Licking in Cats
The exact treatment will depend on the underlying cause.
Recommendations may include:
- Treating any abscess in the area as appropriate with drainage, antibiotics, and pain medications
- Expressing anal glands if they are impacted or treating anal gland infections as appropriate
- Administering antibiotics for dermatitis, vaginitis, or urinary tract infections
- Catheterization for cats with urinary obstructions
- Surgery (cystotomy) or dietary management for treatment of bladder stones
- Spay surgery (ovariohysterectomy) for uterine infections (pyometra) or retained fetuses
- Mass removal of tumors
- Fluid therapy to correct dehydration, as well as anti-inflammatory and pain medications as appropriate, and other therapies as deemed necessary based on the clinical signs
The following are home-care recommendations:
- Administer all prescribed medication as directed by your veterinarian.
- Encourage your cat to eat and drink well.
- Use an e-collar (if recommended) to prevent licking.
- Provide a clean litter box with unscented scoopable litter. It is important to have at least one litter box per cat plus one. Learn more about the fine art of litter box care here.
- Observe your cat closely to ensure they are using the litter box normally. If your cat is straining, having frequent, small urinations, or crying while in the litter box, this may be a medical emergency. In addition, if the clinical signs are not improving or getting worse, or you notice any additional symptoms, such as inappetence, vomiting, or lethargy, contact your veterinarian or closest veterinary emergency hospital immediately.