Cats love to lick. They seem to relish 'tasting' their environment and can spend hours cleaning themselves. But, licking can also cause problems. When injured or after surgery, the natural response for the animal is the lick the wound in an attempt to reduce pain and irritation, remove sutures or remove some of the drainage associated with wounds or incisions.
Minor licking may not be a problem but excessive licking can drastically slow healing or even cause severe infections. Contrary to popular belief, the mouths and tongues of cats are not sterile. In the case of sutures, the incision can open and damage can occur to the surgery site. The bacteria in their mouths readily live and thrive in the moist warm environment of continuously licked wounds.
Problem-licking is not only associated with wounds. Boredom and behavior problems can result in obsessive licking, resulting in injury and inflammation to the skin.
Preventing licking can be frustrating and challenging. Simply telling the cat to stop and moving his head away may work for a brief time but does not help when you are not around or are asleep. More effective solutions are necessary.
Some cats with a mild compulsion to lick may respond to the application of bitter tasting products to bandages covering the wound. Some products can even safely be applied directly to the wound. Products such as Chew Guard®, cayenne pepper, lemon juice or Tabasco® have been used. Discuss with your veterinarian first before applying any of these products directly to a wound; it may cause irritation, which could result in even more licking.
Covering the Wound
For wounds in certain areas, bandaging the wound may be all it takes. By covering the wound, the cat doesn't have easy access and may stop licking. Unfortunately, for many cats, the presence of a bandage will encourage them to lick even more. These cats don't want anything on their skin and will lick and chew until it is off.
For wounds on the torso, an infant t-shirt may do the trick. For the front half of the body, put a t-shirt on in the natural way. For wounds in the back half of the body, put the t-shirt on backwards, with the tail going through the hole for the head and the rear legs going into the arms. You may have to use a strip of sticky tape to tape the bottom hem of the t-shirt to the cat to prevent the shirt from slipping.
The most commonly used and usually effective measure is the collar that fits around the neck and prevents the cat from having access to the area. There are two primary types of collars. The Elizabethan collar looks like a lampshade and surrounds the cat's head, preventing him from getting to the wounded area. The disadvantage is that it takes the cat a few days to get used to the collar. They bang into furniture, walls, the floor and your legs; some will not eat. Fortunately, the collar can be removed when you are around to supervise and easily replaced when you are not available. One advantage is that the collar also prevents your cat from being able to scratch at any injuries or wounds on the face. Other preventative measures don't offer this. You must be careful not to tie this collar too tight around the neck, although some creative and persistent cats can manage to get the collar off.
Another neck collar is based on the principle that if the cat cannot turn his head to get at the injured area, he cannot lick. These firm collars fit around the neck similar to a neck brace. The cat is not able to flex his head enough to get at the wound. These collars do not work too well if the injury is on the front legs but does prevent the cat from contorting and reaching his side or back end. Some very persistent cats will either get the collar off or still be able to reach the wounded area.