Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
I have a 12-year-old male cat that has has an obsessive licking behavior that is constant. It has been going on for about 2 years now. When he can’t lick lick my skin, he licks my clothes. He does not play as much as he did as a kitten, so distracting him with toys really only works occasionally. Also, sometimes after coming in from outside he will be very vocal, almost like the mating calling. Is he trying to tell me something? I recently changed his food to smaller pieces due to the fact that he seemed to have difficulty chewing the larger pieces and would throw up the undigested food. He does not do that any more. But the licking is unbearable, along with his constant pawing for attention. If I don’t pet him he will lick, and even when I pet him he licks. Is he licking for the salt? He gets no salt from clothes, so what is it? Please help — I don’t know what to do!
Siouxsie: Compulsive grooming is a fairly common behavior issue with cats, and there are a lot of potential causes. Only a vet could really tell you for sure why your cat is grooming, but we can give you a couple of ideas to explore and some next steps to take.
Thomas: Some cats groom compulsively because they’re itchy. This can be caused by allergies to food, fleas, or any number of environmental issues. If your cat’s licking habit started after you changed his food, he may be allergic to something in that food.
Siouxsie: There are also behavioral causes for compulsive grooming. Chief among these is stress.
Thomas: Stress can result from changes in lifestyle, new cats in your cat’s territory, boredom, loneliness, or other emotional causes.
Siouxsie: Has your kitty had any changes in his life recently? Did you lose one of his companions — whether human or animal? If so, the behavior might be triggered by grief.
Thomas: Since your cat goes outside, territorial stress is a possibility, particularly since you said he comes in yowling and howling.
Siouxsie: We assume your cat is neutered. If he’s not, you should do that as soon as possible! Once his hormone levels go down, he’ll feel less aggravated by other cats in his territory.
Thomas: Compulsive behaviors can be caused by pain and other health issues, too. Since you said your cat seems to have trouble eating larger kibble, his teeth may be bothering him.
Siouxsie: We don’t think your cat is grooming in search of salt; we cats don’t usually do that kind of thing — and, as you pointed out, there’s no salt in your clothes.
Thomas: So, what does all this mean?
Siouxsie: Because there are so many reasons why your cat might be grooming obsessively, the first thing you should do is take your cat to the vet for a thorough checkup. Your vet will help you rule out any health-related concerns and treat any problems your cat is currently having.
Thomas: Once he’s got a clean bill of health, you can start working on the behavioral causes of the licking. Your vet may recommend a short course of psychoactive medication in order to ease the stressors that trigger your cat’s compulsive behavior.
Siouxsie: You might also want to work with a cat behaviorist, who can visit your home and help you create an environment that’s relaxing and pleasant for your cat. Your vet can recommend a behaviorist in your area. If there isn’t one in your area, some behaviorists will do phone consultations.
Thomas: There are two wonderful books about cat behavior that can really help you work with your cat at home. Starting from Scratch and Twisted Whiskers by renowned behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett are great resources for helping you work with your cat at home. Twisted Whiskers also has a section about working with Bach Flower Essences to deal with behavior problems.
Siouxsie: Well, Marianne, we hope we’ve given you a place to start. And to all of our readers: Whenever your cat has a behavior problem, the first thing you should do is take your kitty to the vet to rule out any health conditions that may be causing the problem.
Thomas: Good luck, Marianne. Please let us know how things turn out.