Why Do Cats Lick Themselves? Can it Become Excessive?

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Have you ever seen your cat licking themselves and body and wondered what the reason is for the peculiar habit? It turns out that they don't just do it to be clean. As dedicated followers of a regular grooming routine, cats spend a lot of time keeping  themselves in tip top condition, but this grooming behaviour is also tied to your cat’s physical and emotional wellbeing.

Why Do Cats Lick Themselves?

Licking is one way that cats clean themselves; distributing saliva all over their body helps them with grooming and they tend to use their front paws to wash their faces and behind their ears. Primping takes up a lot of a cat's time, with some cats spending up to half their day grooming, according to the PDSA. Because evaporating saliva helps cats cool off when they're overheated, licking their paws provides the added benefit of cooling relief in high temperatures.

According to Cats Protection, another reason that cats lick themselves is that licking — and grooming in general — releases endorphins, the body's feel-good hormones. It's a calming activity.

Brown tabby cat with their eyes closed while licking its front paw

When is it too much?

If your cat is spending more time than normal grooming themselves, paying too much attention to their paws or other parts of their body, or actually pulling out bits of fur, it likely indicates an underlying medical issue. Take your cat to the vet so they can identify and treat the issue behind your cat's behaviour.

There are several physical and psychological issues that can lead to excessive grooming, explains the PDSA, including:

Causes of cat anxiety include: being separated from their pet parent; environmental changes, like moving into a new home; and perceived threats, such as having another pet in the household that they don’t get on with, or seeing neighbourhood cats outside, close to (or in!) their territories.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Is your cat licking too much? If you think their behaviour is excessive, keep a closer eye on them. Take note of when they lick their paws or other parts of their body and how long they spend doing it. Note any changes to their skin or fur, such as irritation or hair loss. Additionally, check for any signs of pain such as changes in behaviour or reluctance to jump. If you notice any of these changes make sure to bring them in to their veterinarian. This information will help your vet to make an accurate diagnosis.

At the appointment, your vet will complete a physical exam of your cat. They might  run a few tests to help determine the cause of and treatment for their behaviour. Treatment will vary based on what your veterinarian diagnoses, but may include skin cream or shampoos, oral or injected anti-inflammatory medicine, changes to your cat's food, flea and tick prevention medicine, or antidepressant or anti-anxiety medicine.

The PDSA adds that environmental changes, like using a pheromone diffuser at home or making sure your cat isn’t competing with other cats for resources, will help to decrease stress. You can also add enrichments so that your cat can get more activity and stimulation within your house. This can be as simple as feeding them using a food puzzle, providing them more opportunities to utilise their climbing instincts by installing cat trees or shelves, and having them hunt for their toys.

Your vet may also refer you to a cat behaviourist if they think that stress is contributing to the problem and that environmental or social modifications could help to reduce stress, notes Cats Protection.

Basically, licking themselves is a completely normal cat behaviour, , but if they show signs of excessive licking, speak with your vet as soon as possible. Together, you and your vet can determine the best treatment for your furry friend.

Contributor Bio

Christine O'Brien

Christine O'Brien

Christine Brovelli-O'Brien, Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, STEAM educator, professional member of the Cat Writers' Association (CWA), and a devoted pet parent. She writes about pets, education, and STEAM-y stuff. Her work also has appeared in NIU STEM Read, Fit Pregnancy, What to Expect When You're Expecting Word of Mom, and Care.com. Find and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @brovelliobrien

Reviewed by Dr. Hein Meyer, DVM, PhD, Dipl-ECVIM-CA and Dr. Aileen Pypers, BSc, BVSc, PGDip