Chewing and Licking Behavior in Cats


Chewing behavior - generalized pica

Q: My 2 1/2 yr. old Maine Coon chews on both soft materials (nylon rug fiber, curtains, tablecloth ends) and hard ones (window screening, radio antennas, hard edges on small appliances). I've heard about some breeds needing to ingest undigestible fiber (like wool). Might it be that? If so, is that dangerous? Or, could it be a teeth-related problem? He gets regular vet check-ups and seems in perfect health. Thanks!

A: There are breeds that have a strong tendency to ingest wool, primarily Siamese cats. This is an unexplained tendency that is pretty hard to treat. I don't think that this is considered a need, though.

This condition isn't really dangerous to the cat but it really annoys many owners.

If your cats chews on things like electric cords it could be dangerous. For specific problems like this aversive agents like bitter apple might work. For more generalized pica there are a lot of theories. Increased dietary fiber helps some cats. Other respond to access to greens (grass, green beans, sprouts, etc). In some instances medications for obsessive/compulsive behaviors such as clomipramine (Anafranil Rx) may be helpful. Some people feel that consistent punishment might work but this can change your relationship with your cat.

Dr Michael Richards, DVM 11/27/98

Licking, sucking behavior in kitten

Q: Hello Dr. Mike... I received a kitten for my birthday on May 13th . the kitten was supposedly born march 15th. When we took her to the vet , the vet said she couldn't be more than four weeks old . The vet made this assumption because she was so small. About a week after i got her she started licking and trying to suck on my face . She also tries very hard to knead my face . Actually she'll do this to my face ,neck and ears. I talked to my vet and to say the least she was no help . Cassie ( the cat) now does this 3 times a night . Before we go to bed , in the middle of the night and in the morning. I tried putting her in a box but she cries non-stop all night long. My vet told me this is how she comforts herself by sucking and kneading. I've tried weaning her to a stuffed toy and also a blanket but she still prefers my face. Infact when i push her away or hide under the covers she gets really angry .Should i give her a bottle and a supplement ? Do you have any suggestions ?? please help! she is not spayed yet but has had all vaccinations.also she eats alot !! we feed her about 4 times a day . Thank-you ,sleepless in California

A: Hemmy- Unfortunately, I do not have any better advice than your vet. This is not that unusual a problem. Several people have written and asked about it over the years I have answered questions online and I have not been able to find an effective solution, except to limit the cat's access to the family member it is licking/sucking/biting on at times the behavior is likely to occur.

Behaviorists say that this is a behavior that should respond to deterrence (punishment). It helps if the deterrent doesn't appear to come directly from you. A very loud sound is useful as a deterrent. Air horns work really well for this but if you have close neighbors they aren't going to be enthused by this choice of deterrent. Applying roll-on antiperspirants to the area licked is supposed to help in some instances, apparently because it tastes bad to the kitten. I had one person write and say they had tried applying Tobasco sauce to their neck --- but that the doctor bill for the rash it induced made it a costly deterrent. If these things do not work, then keeping the kitten confined to another room or confined in your room may be the only alternative.

Mike Richards, DVM

Tail chewing

Q: I have a cat who is eight years old and normally very affectionate, generally greeting me at the door. He has very sensitive skin and has lost hair in the past from fleas, for example. Four months ago I got engaged and he now is with another male cat. The other male cat is dominant. They play and also fight but were getting along fine. Then, I moved to a new home two weeks ago. Alex has become antisocial and hides under furniture. He also started pulling all the hair off the end of his tail and is chewing it bloody. He has some dandruff, but my vet could find no evidence of fleas and put him on Elavil. I am having difficulty in getting him to take the pills and when I finally get them down he is so upset that he bites his tail more. Then, he becomes lethargic and hides. I caught the other cat in the closet with him just now licking his tail. It's only been a couple of days since I put him on the medication but he seems worse rather than better. He is now biting his front paws, too. Wondering if mites could be a possibility from reading other site postings. Any suggestions?

A: Jeff- I think I would have suspected a psychological basis for the this problem and considered the use of a medication like amitriptyline (Elavil Rx) too. But since that didn't work it seems reasonable to treat as if mites might be present, to consider one of the long acting flea control products and even to consider the use of corticosteroids to control the itching. Your vet can help you decide the best course of action to take now. Once in a while it helps to treat the other cat with an anti-anxiety medication, especially if there seems to be territorial fighting going on. Mike Richards, DVM

Fabric chewing

Q: We have a female Siamese that is 6 or 7 years old. When she was a kitten she had a slight problem chewing on socks and fuzzy cloth. The problem got better but in the last year has become awful. She is eating huge amounts of blankets, sweaters and even cotton socks. She is an indoor cat and on birth control pills to control heat cycles. She is loving to us and we give her a lot of attention. She does not like strangers in the house. Our vet says there is a condition called "wool lickers" syndrome. His only suggestion was to have her spayed. Any other ideas? We don't want to have to put her to sleep.

A: It does sound like your cat has the symptoms associated with wool sucking. This is an extremely difficult condition to deal with. Some cats have reportedly responded to the addition of lanolin to their food. I don't think that is a highly successful treatment, though. The latest treatment for this that I have seen in the veterinary literature is to remove the premolars and molars. These are the teeth that damage the objects these cats chose to chew on. Removing the teeth makes the behavior less damaging. I know this sounds really radical (even to me) but it is preferable to euthanizing your cat. There are veterinary behaviorists and you may be lucky enough to have one in your area. Asking your vet for a referral to a behaviorist might be another course to take. I wish that I had better advice for this problem but this is what I have been able to find on it.

Mike Richards, DVM

Reader Tip - Catproofing electrical cords in the home

Dr. Mike, Here is a tip that may be useful to some of your readers: We have a kitten who has matured, but who still loves to chew on anything string-like such as telephone cords, power cords, etc. I found that she was only interested in chewing on small cords, so I mail ordered about 500 feet of "wire loom jacket" material from an automotive supplier and I jacketed all of the telephone, loudspeaker, and power cords in the home. The material is a durable corrugated plastic tube with a slit in its side, to allow it to be easily slipped over a wire The intended use of this material is to contain multiple wires into a single neat bundle. If you look under the hood of a modern automobile, you will see examples of it. In my application, it makes the cord's diameter much larger. I tried both 3/8 inch and 1/2 inch sizes, and found that the 1/2 inch size reliably discouraged chewing on the cords while the 3/8 inch size was marginal, at least with this cat. No more cord worries! Bob

Licking behavior

Q: I have a 15 month old male long hair cat. He's very healthy, has a very large frame/paws, about 15 pounds but not fat, has only thrown up once in his entire life, and eats, goes to the bathroom, and plays great. He's declawed in the front, only because he was a big scratcher (skin! not furniture) when I got him as a 9 week old kitten, he was fixed at 6 months, and has had all his shots/check-ups. The ONE thing he does which I can't imagine is normal is his constant licking. Not himself, but ME! He licks me every time he gets a chance. He was always a biter, and very aggressive, but he's learned not to, and always stops biting if I react with a loud voice or a swat. He will lick instead of bite, almost like he's showing me he doesn't mean to hurt me. He also licks my foot if I simply walk by him, my leg, anything he's touching at the time. I thought I had read somewhere where there's a licking disorder in cats, but it might have involved licking floors or furniture, which he Doesn't do. Any suggestions/input? I haven't asked my vet yet because there doesn't appear to be anything else wrong with him. He doesn't have any apparent skin irritations, knots in his fur, bald patches, and he doesn't scratch himself. He has no contact with other cats, and only goes outside when he's on my deck, which is on the 2nd floor. He's a very aggressive male, plays rough, but doesn't intentionally hurt anyone for the most part. My friends say he acts like he's a dog, running to the door when someone rings or knocks, meowing LOUDLY at people when the enter, and howling incessantly at my bedroom door at night trying to get inside my room. Anyway, if you could give me some insight into WHY he licks and licks so much, I would appreciate it.

A: Elizabeth- I have not been able to locate much information on cats licking their owners. There is a lot of information suggesting that many licking disorders such as cats that overgroom, lick the walls or the floors, etc. may be exhibiting a "displacement" behavior. This would be a behavior that indicates an underlying stress the cat copes with by licking. It isn't possible for me to say if that is occurring with your cat but perhaps the licking occurs because it is stressful to suppress the urge to bite (his more natural urge in your post). I am not a behaviorist and probably shouldn't theorize -- if you can find a behaviorist in your area this would be an interesting case for him or her, I'm sure!

Mike Richards, DVM

Chewing on Owner's hair

Q: Hello: I just read your page and would like to ask about something my kitten does. I go to school at around 9 or 10 am and don't get home till 5 or 6pm sometimes. Everything is fine till I go to bed and my female kitten, who I believe is around 2 months, snuzzles and lick or sometimes chews on my hair. Have you every heard of this and what should I do to help her stop? Thank you, Brandy

A: Brandy- There is nothing wrong with your kitten. She is exhibiting normal behavior. Your kitten is trying to tell you she is content and happy to be with you. Many kittens and cats chew on their owner's hair, lick them or even suck on blankets, shirts, etc. If this bothers you, you can pick her up and place her somewhere else but you may find her coming back to you and starting the behavior again. You may end up having to keep her out of your room completely at night if she doesn't stop. Some kittens decrease the behavior when they get older, others do not. Good luck.

Mike Richards, DVM

Last edited 01/30/05


Michael Richards, D.V.M. co-owns a small animal general veterinary practice in rural tidewater Virginia. Dr. Richards graduated from Iowa State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in 1979, and has been in private practice ever since. Dr. Richards has been the director of the PetCare Forum...