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Excessive Licking

Dr. Amy Marder, V.M.D., VP Behavioral Medicine

The Cat Who Licked Too Much

When Evelyn met Li’l Bit at the ASPCA shelter, she was attracted to her because she was friendly and liked to be petted. Evelyn had lost her two elderly cats the previous year, but she had recovered from her loss and was ready for another cat.

cat licking


Li’l Bit had been given up by her owners because she wasn’t getting along with another cat in the home. Since Evelyn had no cats, she took the beautiful, two-year-old tortoiseshell home.

Evelyn renamed the cat Samantha. She kept Samantha’s litterbox immaculate, fed her the best cat foods, bought her fun toys and played with her every day. Only one week later, however, Samantha was acting as if all this wasn’t enough.

Samantha had developed an annoying habit. She licked the wood furniture, and she licked Evelyn’s arms, legs and face. Since a cat’s rough tongue can be irritating to human skin – and damaging to wood furniture – Evelyn pushed her away. But when she did, Samantha bit her, sometimes hard enough to draw blood. Evelyn thought that the licking and biting would stop with time, but when there was no improvement after six months, Evelyn and Samantha came to see me at the ASPCA. Since Evelyn had adopted Samantha from the “A’s” shelter, she was seen free of charge.

Something About Samantha

I found Samantha to be overweight but otherwise very healthy. While taking a behavioral history and watching Samantha interact with Evelyn in the Behavior Room, it became apparent that Samantha was attempting to groom Evelyn, just as if she were another cat, and was biting her when she didn’t get her way.

My feeling was that Samantha might do best if Evelyn provided her with a feline playmate – someone she could groom, get attention from and play with. But because Samantha had not gotten along with the other cat in her first home, Evelyn was reluctant. I suggested that maybe the two cats just had not been compatible and that getting a cat with a similar, strong personality would work out, but Evelyn still balked.

Next I recommended techniques to entertain Samantha and keep her mind off grooming. Evelyn was to increase the time she played with Samantha, give her food-containing toys and play videos of cats for her. I also recommended that Evelyn spray her arms with lemon juice to deter the licking. By the end of the appointment, Evelyn had changed her mind. She wanted to try to introduce a new cat, after all. She’d enjoyed living with two cats, so why not try?

Evelyn and I went downstairs to the cat room. We selected Charlie, a one-year-old, mellow, neutered male. Charlie was active enough to play with Samantha, yet quiet enough to tolerate being groomed. (I had wanted to find a female, because spraying is less common in same-sex households, but none with the right personality was available.) We brought Charlie up to the Behavior Room in a small cage. After a little hissing and growling, the two accepted each other. What luck! Evelyn took Charlie home.

In her apartment, Evelyn introduced the two cats gradually, just to be safe: first in separate rooms, then with the door opened a crack, and finally face-to-face. In no time at all, Samantha started to groom Charlie…and he loved it! Both cats purred. Samantha stopped grooming Evelyn altogether and stopped biting her. A month later, Evelyn sent me a photograph of her two happy kids. It was a picture of Samantha grooming Charlie.

Dr. Marder is vice president of behavioral medicine and head of ASPCA Companion Animal Services.

© 2001 ASPCA
ASPCA Animal Watch – Summer 2001

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