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By Dr. Ken Lambrecht, DVM
Cat suckling is a common, generally non-harmful cat behavior that occurs in all breeds and all ages of cats. When cat suckling behaviors occur in adult cats, though, it tends to gets more attention and can be viewed as abnormal.
Cat suckling can be directed towards humans, with cat suckling on fingers or skin, or it can be done on fabrics (like blankets and towels). Cat suckling can happen with anything that vaguely resembles the original suckling target: the mother cat’s mammae (nipples) and surrounding hair.
While it may be a difficult cat behavior to stop or deter, it is rarely harmful. Understanding the behavioral components is essential to discerning whether modification is warranted.
Why Does a Cat Suckle Into Adulthood?
1. Natural Instinct
The instinct to suckle is very strong in young kittens, and they may try to suckle anything soft, warm and fuzzy, especially if it resembles a mother cat. This cat behavior can even last into adulthood, with a cat suckling on objects like a blanket, a fuzzy toy or a piece of clothing (often wool or a similar texture). You can think of it as being similar to human thumb-sucking, which, at least superficially, seems like a fair comparison.
If a kitten is very relaxed or comfortable, kneading behavior usually occurs—often followed by suckling behavior. Both are normal and seem to be relaxing for a cat, whether milk is present or not. This is evident in the post-weaning kitten behavior of suckling when no milk is present.
If a cat is stressed, she may exhibit obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and that can include cat suckling. Other signs of stress include over-grooming behaviors, paw-sucking, tail-chewing or flank-licking.
Oriental breeds, such as Siamese, Balinese, Tonkinese and their crosses, seem to be more prone to adult cat suckling than European or North American breeds.
5. Weaning Experience
Excessive suckling behavior has been linked to early weaning in a number of cases.
Is Cat Suckling a Symptom of a Disease?
The diseases that would be direct causes of adult cat suckling would be behavioral disorders. These include a lack of environmental stimulation, various anxiety disorders and environmental stress or conflict.
There is no known organ-specific disease that cat suckling is related to; however, if it begins fairly spontaneously, it could be a sign of pain (like dental pain) or other stress, and the cat could be suckling as a coping strategy.
In this case, a veterinarian should definitely be consulted. A full health history, medical exam and possibly bloodwork should be done to determine an underlying medical cause.
What Should You Do About Cat Suckling?
Probably nothing. As it is a soothing, calming and instinctual response for the cat, indicating comfort and contentment, it is probably best to just accept cat suckling as a normal cat behavior.
However, if it is causing excessive stress to the owner or is leading to ingestion of foreign material (pica) resulting in excessive vomiting or gastric upset, you should try to reduce or eliminate the behavior.
How to Make Sure Your Cat’s Needs Are Being Met
1. Make sure to meet the environmental needs of cats—always! Virtually every stress-related behavior in cats can be attributed to a lack of proper resources.
Separate eating, elimination and sleeping areas are paramount to a cat’s sense of well-being. Providing both hiding spaces and vertical escape areas, like cat trees, as well as making sure there are adequate, separate resources for each cat in a multiple-cat household, are vital to preventing most behavioral disorders in cats. AAFP reference
2. If cat suckling seems to be caused by stress, try to eliminate or minimize stressors by using a synthetic pheromone, like a Feliway plug-in diffuser, or by giving your cat extra attention and playtime.
3. Provide access to something that satisfies their suckling urge but won’t harm them. Long strands of wool or other linear material can be problematic and should be avoided. Keep blankets, sweaters or other articles of clothing out of their reach, and if the cat's desired object is a piece of furniture, isolate her from that room.
4. Provide your cat with some mental stimulation. Boredom can be a part of the suckling, so it is a good idea to try playing, exercising, using cat puzzle toys or offering cat treats or small amounts of cat food to redirect the behavior and satisfy some of their other natural predation urges.
If the cat does not have another cat in the household to play with, consider adopting another cat.
5. As a last resort—and rarely needed—veterinary medications can be considered. Medication can be used if the suckling behavior is excessive and destructive or is caused by stress for which no cause or relief can be found. Antidepressants, such as clomipramine (Clomicalm) and fluoxetine (Prozac) have proven effective. Cat anxiety medication, such as buspirone (BuSpar) or gabapentin may work as well. Your veterinarian is the only person qualified to determine if a course of drugs should be used and how.
Cats are complex social creatures. After screening carefully for underlying stressors, and taking precautions to limit access to materials that could be harmful if ingested, we may just need to accept suckling in certain adult cats as a unique, harmless behavior.