Adult cats spend about 50 percent of their waking hours grooming themselves. While friendly cats and litter mates often groom each other, felines may also groom their humans by licking their skin or hair. Sometimes they may even nibble or suckle clothing and drool profusely.
Such behavior is generally a way for cats to show affection. Just as mother cats lick their young, grooming communicates a cat’s fondness for a person, as well as a sense of belonging.
The licking marks you as a member of the animal’s family group and spreads the cat’s scent. Just as cats scratch certain places to mark their territory, licking your skin or hair is a way of claiming you.
Of course, if your feline friend licks your hair after a shower or your hands after you've applied lotion, it could simply be that your shampoo or lotion has an enticing scent or taste.
If your cat is suckling or licking excessively, it may have been orphaned or weaned too early. Some experts believe that kittens taken from their mother too early show infantile behaviors like this as adults.
However, licking, nibbling and suckling can also be a response to stress, anxiety or illness, or it may simply be a comforting behavior for the feline.
In rare cases, these actions can develop into a compulsive disorder. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, “a behavior is typically considered compulsive if a cat has trouble stopping, even when you try to distract him with another activity.”
If your older cat has only recently started licking or suckling you, take him to the veterinarian. Hyperthyroidism is common in older cats and can cause many behavioral changes.
If your cat’s grooming or suckling you is so frequent that it’s bothersome, there are ways to discourage the behavior.
The easiest way to do this is to get up and walk away whenever your cat begins to lick. Don’t move so abruptly that you frighten him — simply remove him and leave the room. For such behavior modification to be effective, you’ll likely have to keep this up for several weeks or months.
You can also distract your cat with treats or toys, or provide him with something to chew or suckle instead of you, such as grass, catnip or a thin piece of rawhide. Your feline friend may simply require more exercise or mental stimulation, so mental stimulation and playtime can help curb the undesirable behavior.
If you suspect your cat’s licking or suckling is stress-related, try to determine what provokes it. It could be a recent household change, such as the loss of a family pet or visitors to the home.
Once you’ve identified the trigger, help your cat find a way to cope. For example, if visitors or a new pet are making your cat anxious, make sure your pet has a safe place to hide where he can be left alone.
Most importantly, as you work to discourage this behavior, don’t raise your voice or physically punish the animal. Grooming and suckling is often caused by stress, so this could actually intensify these actions.
If your pet’s behavior seems interfere with the animal’s quality of life, talk to your veterinarian. A vet may suggest consulting an animal behaviorist to determine what’s causing the licking and suckling and how best to resolve the issue.