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We could learn a lot from cats' dedication to self-care. From lazy sunbeam naps to getting frisky with catnip toys, they certainly know how to live their best lives. So why do cats lick themselves?
"Cats are fastidious groomers and like to keep themselves clean," says Tarina L. Anthony, DVM, a longtime practitioner of feline-exclusive medicine, and owner and medical director of Aurora Cat Hospital and Hotel in Aurora, Colorado. Let's take a closer look.
Why Do Cats Lick Themselves So Much?
Approximately 30 percent of a cat's day is spent grooming. While this typically happens after meals or before going to sleep, Anthony says "normal grooming occurs at any time of day, and the amount of time spent with coat care varies greatly."
Such dedicated attention is why cats rarely need baths. Their sandpaper-like tongue—covered with miniscule barbs or papillae—helps spread natural oils into the skin and across their fur to keep it looking sleek and remove any debris that settles into the coat. Depending on the breed, you also need to groom your cat to keep mats and tangles to a minimum. But honestly, a kitty's multipurpose tongue often handles most of that spiffing up, too.
Licking also helps distribute saliva, which some scientists believe is essential for self-regulating body temperature. Because cats only sweat through their paws, saliva evaporating on their fur provides a cooling effect.
When Cat Licking Isn't Normal
So on one paw, cats licking themselves a lot sounds like typical operating procedure. On the other paw, what if it's not? Anthony says "when the behavior happens more frequently or for a longer duration than for normal coat care," this is over-grooming.
To understand when your cat's behavior seems out of the ordinary, Anthony advises examining his body language.
"Getting to know your cat's 'normal' can help you determine when things are 'abnormal'. Normal grooming shouldn't remove hair and shouldn't be obsessive," she says. "I've heard cats growl when people try to interrupt the frantic licking of over-grooming. Also, a twitch followed by quick licking or biting could be abnormal."
She advises pet parents to watch for "barbering" or "fur mowing," which is when a cat bites at or pulls out hairs in a certain area. If your cat is excessively licking, it can also cause a color change to their fur, usually resulting in a brownish-tint.
Here are some of the primary reasons cats engage in over-grooming and licking.
Although we often think more about people being allergic to cats, our feline friends are prone to allergies of their own. "Cats develop allergies to pollen, dust, food, and even human dander," Anthony says. "Instead of watery eyes and sneezing, allergies often manifest as over-grooming, sometimes to the point of damaging the surface layers of the skin."
Just as purring is sometimes a self-soothing method for kitties, licking too much can be as well. Thus, cats might groom a particular area (or even unrelated areas) if they feel uncomfortable.
"Cats are unable to 'massage' areas that are too painful like humans do, so licking is their way of addressing the underlying pain," Anthony says. These particular furballs are often more stoic in their demonstrations of pain, too, so licking too much might be a symptom of something more serious.
Painful conditions often include, but aren't limited to:
While these are more common in outdoor cats, even indoor kitties are susceptible to the effects of opportunistic parasites, such as fleas and ticks. And although mites are usually species-specific, some that affect dogs can also infect cats, resulting in scabies.
Anthony says ectoparasites like these, when not properly prevented and treated, cause severe itching that manifests as licking or even hair-pulling. Skin infections from yeast, ringworm, or bacteria can also lead to an itchy kitty.
"Overweight cats often have moist dermatitis from stool or urine getting trapped in their fur or skin folds," Anthony says. "This can cause the cats to lick and over-groom their paws, belly, and back because they often cannot reach the problem area directly."
Feline hyperaesthesia is a neurological disease characterized by overreaction to normal stimuli (such as brushing and petting) that can cause cats to become very sensitive. The result? Excessive licking or over-grooming. Hyperaesthesia could also be one reason why some cats lick themselves after you pet them.
However, another possibility is much less of a concern: They perceive your touch as social interaction and relationship building, so they lick themselves (and maybe you!) in response. This reaction is often related to allogrooming, wherein animals groom each other to build connection.
Cats might also lick themselves more than usual if they experience anxiety due to stress, lack of social interaction, moving to a new house, or health issues, to name a few. Separation anxiety might also result in too much licking.
Anthony cautions pet parents to consult a veterinarian for a full health exam. "Anxiety is an often-cited reason for cats to obsessively lick or groom themselves, but this is truly an uncommon condition that's over-diagnosed," she says. "In my experience, most cats diagnosed with 'psychogenic alopecia' often have untreated allergies or another issue."
If there's reason to believe your cat has psychogenic alopecia, Anthony adds that it's treated, at least in part, with environmental enrichment. "Environmental enrichment is a very important thing for all cats," she says. "It can help relieve anxiety and boredom, which are often-cited causes for psychogenic alopecia."
Getting to the Root Cause for Cat Licking
With all these possible contributing factors, it can sometimes be a frustrating process to get a proper diagnosis—especially when you're so concerned about your kitty's over-grooming. Health conditions such as allergies, for example, require extensive testing and multiple attempts at effective management, often requiring more intense treatments at certain times of the year (for seasonal allergies) or food changes (for food-related allergies). Anthony encourages you to be patient.
"Some of the causes of over-grooming are what we call 'diagnoses of rule out.' This means everything else must be ruled out first. If your cat isn't improving, it's okay to seek a second opinion, either with a dermatologist or a feline specialist," she says. "Treatment may be trial and error in some cases, and medications and supplements should only be administered under the direction of a veterinarian."