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Why is my cat constantly licking and kneading me, and what can I do about it?

Dear Sinéad, Siouxsie and Thomas:
We have never had a cat before and I have tried to find information on this matter via the Internet, but have had little to no success. I'm hoping that one of you can shed some light for me.

In October 2004 we acquired a sweet, little, black kitten. His name is Ziggy. In every aspect he is purrrfect! Our question is this: Is it normal for him to constantly (and I mean every time he sits with me, which is often because I am a stay home mom with 4 kids 13, 7, 4 and 17 months) lick my neck and under my chin while also kneading me?

When he first came to live with us, I of course became the "other mother". He was about 7-8 weeks old. I carried him around a lot while he was small, because the younger kiddies wouldn't leave him alone. Especially the baby, and and I didn't want Joshua to hurt Ziggy. Ziggy slept with me from day one. He curls up next to my head at my right shoulder.

He has always licked and kneaded me. I always toss him to the floor with a frustrated "enough Ziggy, come on!", because it's become very, very frequent. Not to mention that my neck/throat can only handle so much of his rough tongue and claws. He doesn't really scratch me or break the skin, but rather kneads and pricks me. I find myself putting on turtle necks to help protect myself.

The first time the kids and I were out of town, and Dear Hubby stayed home with Ziggy, he performed this affectionate behavior on "Daddy". Sometimes he does it to our oldest daughter.

I know lots of cat lovers, but no one has a cat that does this. Is there something wrong with Ziggy?

I've raised and trained dogs throughout my adult life with great success. Now we have Ziggy and a pet king snake, Peper. Ziggy has been easily trained in a number of behaviors: he doesn't get up on the counters, tables, dressers, or even the snake's tank. He uses a litter box purrfectly. He sleeps all night with me, Amanda or the other girls. He doesn't get into the trash cans. He learns quickly. He doesn't even act aggressive when little Josh, plops on top of him to cuddle, pulls his ears, tail or fur. By all accounts he is the best behaved cat out of his litter! But why does he constantly lick me?!

I hope it's not seizures. I read that some cats have seizures that are connected with licking ... but it doesn't seem like that's it. I also wonder if he needs more salt? Really I'm at a loss.

It's not the worst thing I can think of but it's getting close to obsessive behavior. I don't want him to feel unloved or shunned by my lack of interest in this form of affection.

Well, sorry for going on and on. Hope one of you can give me a clue.

Thanks very much,
Ziggy's Mommy (AKA Cindy)

Sinéad: Well, Cindy, I think Ziggy licks you constantly because, at some level, he's imprinted on you as his mother.

Siouxsie: When you first adopted Ziggy, you carried him everywhere. He sleeps with you, and for all intents and purposes you're another cat, according to him.

Thomas: And because in his eyes you're his mama cat, he licks and kneads you as a sign of affection. It's a self-comforting behavior as well. He doesn't realize that it hurts, since you don't have any fur to cover up that soft, tender skin of yours.

Sinéad: This licking behavior does make us think that maybe Ziggy was a little bit younger when you adopted him than you were told he was. It was probably an honest mistake, though. Most people seem to believe that kittens are fully weaned after six weeks. This is not exactly true. Although by six weeks, kittens are eating (soft) solid food, they are not fully weaned until 8 weeks of age -- and sometimes even older.

Siouxsie: Kittens that are weaned too early, or abandoned by their mothers, often demonstrate kneading, licking and sucking behavior.

Thomas: We don't think Ziggy is having seizures. If he were having seizures, he would most likely exhibit other kinds of odd behavior such as vacant stares, disorientation, excessive vocalization, and inappropriate urination.

Sinéad: That having been said, we will tell you that it's possible to modify Ziggy's behavior, but it will probably take a good deal of time, consistency and patience on your behalf, since he has been doing this behavior since he was a kitten.

Siouxsie: The best tactic for getting Ziggy to stop licking you is to distract him with another activity as soon as he even starts looking as though he wants to lick you. The great thing about the distraction technique is that you'll still be able to give him the love and attention he obviously craves

Thomas: Don't distract him with yelling or dropping him on the floor, because a) if he hasn't begun to lick you when you yell, he won't understand why he's being punished; and b) if he has started to lick, he's going to wonder why the licking was okay for a few minutes and now it's not.

Sinéad: We recommend other kinds of fun distractions, like a play session with his favorite interactive toy.

Siouxsie: If you don't have any toys for him, you really should get some. For solo play, we recommend catnip toys (with organic catnip, if possible), little fur mice, and bouncy balls he can chase around the room.

Thomas: For interactive play, it depends on what kind of games your kitty likes to play. We enjoy playing String, for example. That's when Mama takes the Red String Of Death (a 6-foot-long shoelace) and dangles it in the air and makes it dance around the room so we can chase it. Other cats like the Cat Dancer, or Kitten Mittens (a glove with extra-long fingers that have little fluffy balls attached). There are many toys to choose from; get a few different ones and see which Ziggy likes best.

Sinéad: You have to be very, very consistent with this distraction technique. And so does everyone in your family.

Siouxsie: Unlike dogs, who tend to "get it" after a couple of examples of positive reinforcement of good behavior and negative reinforcement of bad behavior, cats are very, very stubborn in their quest to continue behaviors that make them feel good.

Thomas: If you've distracted Ziggy from licking and kneading every single time for a month, and then somebody relents and lets him lick their skin for a while, Ziggy will realize that if he just keeps trying to lick long enough, he'll get his way. So everybody in the family has to be on board with the distraction technique, and you all have to decide at what point in the behavior pattern you will start distracting him.

Sinéad: We think that by playing with him and engaging in your own grooming activities (such as running a nice, yummy rubber-bristled brush through his fur), you will eventually be able to put a stop to Ziggy's overzealous nursing behavior.

Siouxsie: Since this self-comforting behavior can be a sign of anxiety, we recommend that you talk to your veterinarian as well. He or she may be able to refer you to an animal behaviorist who can help to design a program especially for calming and retraining Ziggy. Some cats also benefit from taking anti-anxiety drugs for short periods of time, as this can potentially help "reprogram" Ziggy to stop the licking and kneading.

Thomas: We'd hold off on the pharmaceutical solution and use it as a last resort, if at all. But we just mention it so you know it is possible to treat cats' behavior problems with drug therapy as well as behavior modification.

Sinéad: There's a book that might be helpful to you and give you some insight into how cats' minds work and how behavior modification works in cats. Think Like A Cat: How to Raise a Well-Adjusted Cat, Not a Sour Puss, by Pam Johnson-Bennett (Penguin Books, 2000), is a great resource for anyone who wants to retrain a cat away from bad behavior and have a good relationship with their cat for the cat's entire lifespan.

Siouxsie: Good luck, Cindy. Please do let us know how it goes.

Got a question? Need some advice? E-mail us at advice@paws-and-effect.com. None of the material in this column is meant to be a substitute for regular veterinary care.