Why Do Cats Lick Themselves? A Vet Explains

We can learn a great deal from cats when it comes to taking care of ourselves. Whether they're enjoying a leisurely nap in a sunbeam or getting playful with catnip toys, they certainly know how to live their best lives. But have you ever wondered why cats lick themselves so much?

According to Tarina L. Anthony, DVM, a veterinarian and owner of Aurora Cat Hospital and Hotel in Aurora, Colorado, cats are meticulous groomers who like to keep themselves clean. On average, about 30 percent of a cat's day is spent grooming. This grooming behavior can happen at any time of the day and can vary in duration.

Cats rarely need baths because their tongues, which are covered in small barbs or papillae, act like sandpaper and help spread natural oils across their skin and fur. This not only keeps their coat looking sleek but also helps remove any debris that may have settled on it. While some grooming may be required for certain breeds to minimize matting and tangles, a cat's tongue usually handles most of the grooming tasks.

Licking also serves another purpose for cats. It helps distribute saliva, which some scientists believe is essential for regulating their body temperature. Since cats only sweat through their paws, the evaporating saliva on their fur provides a cooling effect.

But what if a cat's licking behavior isn't normal? According to Anthony, if the behavior occurs more frequently or for a longer duration than normal grooming, it may be a sign of over-grooming. To determine if a cat's behavior is abnormal, it is important to pay attention to their body language.

Anthony suggests becoming familiar with your cat's normal grooming patterns to recognize when something is amiss. Normal grooming shouldn't remove hair or be obsessive. If your cat growls when you interrupt their frantic licking or if they exhibit twitching followed by quick licking or biting, it may indicate abnormal behavior.

Excessive licking can have various underlying causes, including allergies. Cats can develop allergies to pollen, dust, food, and even human dander. Instead of experiencing watery eyes and sneezing, allergies often manifest as over-grooming, which can damage the skin.

Licking can also be a self-soothing technique for cats. They may focus on a specific area or engage in unrelated over-grooming if they feel uncomfortable. It can also be a way for cats to address underlying pain, as they are unable to massage areas of pain like humans can.

There are several painful conditions that may lead to over-grooming, such as arthritis or dental issues. Additionally, external parasites like fleas and ticks or infections from yeast, ringworm, or bacteria can cause itching and excessive licking.

Overweight cats may also over-groom due to discomfort caused by moisture and trapped stool or urine in their fur or skin folds. Another neurological condition called feline hyperaesthesia can cause cats to become overly sensitive and react by excessive licking or grooming.

Anxiety and stress can also contribute to excessive licking in cats. Changes in environment, lack of social interaction, or health issues can all lead to increased grooming as a response to anxiety. However, it is important to consult a veterinarian to rule out any underlying health conditions that may be causing the excessive licking.

Diagnosing the root cause of excessive licking in cats can sometimes be a challenging process. Allergies, for example, require extensive testing and management. It may involve trial and error, and medications or supplements should only be administered under the guidance of a veterinarian.

Even though it may be frustrating, it is essential to be patient and seek a second opinion if necessary. Proper treatment and management can help alleviate the underlying causes of excessive grooming and improve your cat's overall well-being. And remember, providing environmental enrichment, interactive playtime, and a balanced diet can make a significant difference in your cat's happiness and health.

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