Why Does My Cat Lick

Why Does My Cat Lick

by Michael
(London, UK)

Photo by Muffet (Flickr - creative commons license)

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Photo by Muffet (Flickr - creative commons license)

People ask, “why does my cat lick” and we see it so often that we don’t think of it as behaviour that is, well, somewhat exceptional amongst all the animal species. Not odd but certainly a question worth asking. Licking is synonymous with cats and for me it calls into question how other animals clean themselves. Or do they? How do dogs clean themselves? We clean them don’t we? Mice and rats lick themselves but employ different techniques.

Anyway cats lick themselves and other cats or animals. They lick themselves to keep clean, obviously, but it it not as straightforward as that. A cats licks itself for the following reasons:

  • to smooth the fur to make it a better insulating layer which is more efficient in the cold
  • to help to keep the cat cooler in hot conditions. Cats don’t have sweat glands, which cool the cat by the process of evaporating perspiration (latent heat of evaporation). Instead, cats lick their fur in hot weather to cool themselves through the evaporation of the saliva.
  • to ingests the vitamin D that is produced on their fur by the action of sunlight. Vitamin D is a crucial additive.
  • as displacement behaviour (new window). Some people bite their finger nails or lick their lips etc. when tense. Cats lick themselves and you will see a cat lick its nose repeatedly as a form of displacement behaviour therapy.
  • to remove your scent when and if you have picked up or stroked your cat. This allows the cat’s odour to be dominant on its body. Our scent on our cat’s body creates an imbalance in the cats world which is very much a world of scent and odours. They are far more important for a cat. It also allows the cat to taste our scent as well as smell it. This will be pleasant to our cat if we have a good bond with him or her.
  • to stimulate the glands at the base of the fur by tugging it during grooming, which in turn water proofs the fur.

Licking fur can cause hairballs as we know. Licking too much can be the symptom of an illness such as feline alopecia (new window).

Self licking is called autogrooming. When a cat is born the mother licks her offspring. This is called allogrooming. Cats that are close also partake in allogrooming. And of course cats can groom their human companion for the same reason which is to acknowledge and cement the bond they have.

Cats lick the side of the paw and forearm and then use this to groom inaccessible places such as behind the ear and around the eyes.

Cats have a set procedure when autogrooming (src: Desmond Morris):

  • lick lips
  • lick the side of one paw
  • rub the paw over the head, ears, eye, cheek and the chin
  • do the same with the other paw
  • lick front legs & shoulders
  • lick the flanks
  • lick genital area
  • lick hind legs
  • lick tail base first

Cats also lick between their toes removing dirt. We have all seen our cat nibble the fur in the middle of grooming. This is removing knots in the fur. When a cat is older and less flexible or overweight it cannot groom areas that it would normally get to resulting in matting.

So, why does my cat lick? There are many good reasons as can be seen.

From Why Does My Cat Lick to Why Do Cats

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