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Is it okay that my cat likes to lick and knead me so much?

Dear Sinéad, Siouxsie and Thomas:
I had a question about my 6-month-old kitten Lila. I adopted her from someone who found a litter of kittens abandoned in a home in awful conditions. She was around 4 weeks old when I adopted her, I'm guessing. My question is about the whole licking and kneading process.

Every evening after I go to sleep, Lila eventually climbs on me and nestles under my chin near my upper arm and constantly purrs, licks, and kneads all at the same time. It is quite funny and cute, but I just want to make sure that there is nothing wrong with her. I will try to remove her from my chest sometimes, but she climbs right back until she is done. Also, when she is done her purring, licking, and kneading she automatically jumps off my bed and goes to eat some food ... every time!

I'm sure this has something to do with her being weaned too early. It honestly does not bother me at all, but I just want to make sure this behavior is okay. Thanks so much!

~ Sharon

Sinéad: Sharon, you're absolutely right. The behavior you're describing is related to Lila's having been weaned too early.

Siouxsie: Licking, purring and kneading are behaviors that newborn kittens use to get their mothers to produce milk and to let her know that they're content.

Thomas: A kitten that is separated from its mother before it's fully weaned often manifests these behaviors well into adulthood. The reason for this is that kneading and licking and purring comforts the kitten, too. And the fact that she eats as soon as she completes this ritual is proof. She's comforted herself and then goes to eat.

Sinéad: There's nothing wrong with Lila, she's simply reacting to the stresses of her early life.

Siouxsie: As long as Lila's behavior doesn't bother you, we don't think you need to worry too much. She'll probably grow out of it, to some extent, as she gets older.

Thomas: The only caution we'd give you is that as she gets bigger, her claws will get bigger too, and the kneading could leave holes in your skin.

Sinéad: We'd recommend that you get Lila accustomed to having her claws trimmed while she's still a kitten. That way you can keep her claws under control so that she doesn't hurt you with her kneading when she is fully grown.

Siouxsie: You'll need to get a nail trimmer designed for cats, which you can find at pet stores. These devices are very reasonably priced, and they're very much worth the investment. I say this even though I hate it when Mama trims my claws!

Thomas: If you've never trimmed a cat's claws before, ask your vet or a groomer to show you how. You could also find a book or web site that shows you how to do so. The About.com cats forum, for example, has a web page that shows you how to clip your cat's claws without causing pain or bleeding.

Sinéad: We'd also like you to keep an eye on her clawing and kneading and make sure it doesn't get more frequent or develop into more problematic behaviors like wool sucking.

Siouxsie: If she graduates to sucking on fabric, some intervention may be required. Sucking and chewing on fabric can lead to blockages in the gut. Fabric is indigestible and if she eats enough to get blocked up, she may need surgery to have it removed.

Thomas: But if she just continues kneading and licking, we really don't think you need to worry.

Sinéad: If the behavior does become a problem for you or anyone else sharing your home at a later time, it's very important that you gradually wean her from her need to knead and lick. If you or a housemate suddenly starts reacting to her behavior in an angry way -- for example, yelling "No!" and tossing her away -- it will stress Lila severely and could cause other behavior problems such as compulsive grooming or urinating outside the box.

Siouxsie: We'd recommend the use of flower essences, because they're gentle, nontoxic, and fairly easily available. Our favorite flower essences are produced by Green Hope Farms in New Hampshire, because they use a tincture of red Shiso root (a plant), rather than alcohol, to preserve them. The taste of alcohol is very unpleasant to cats, but we actually like the taste of the red Shiso root-preserved essences.

Thomas: Green Hope has a whole line of animal care essences, including a couple designed to reduce anxiety and help animals feel safe and relaxed.

Sinéad: There are many other great flower essences, including those produced by Bach and Anaflora. They are perfectly good to use as well. In fact, we recommend that Bach's Rescue Remedy be a part of every cat lover's medicine chest, to be used whenever there's a physical or emotional trauma (such as a trip to the vet, an injury, a move, or the death of an animal friend). But if you use an alcohol-based essence like Rescue Remedy, administer it by rubbing a drop of it into the skin of Lila's ear flap rather than putting it in her mouth.

Siouxsie: We think you'll find that flower essences help Lila to feel calmer and reduce her need to knead, as it were.

Thomas: If her behavior becomes more severe, we'd recommend that you consider Feliway, a feline pheromone analogue designed to help cats feel less stressed. Generally it's used in situations where cats have urinating or spraying problems, or are being aggressive with one another. But Mama's used it when we've had to move to a new home, too, because it helps us feel calmer. Feliway is available at pet stores and veterinarians' offices, as well as at numerous online shops dedicated to animal care. An Internet search will reveal several places to buy it and instructions on how to use it.

Sinéad: We hope we've been able to reassure you about Lila's kneading and purring and licking. If you need any more information, please let us know.

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.