Why Do Cats Lick Their Paws? Can it Become Excessive?

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Have you ever seen your cat licking their paws and body and wondered what the reason is for the peculiar habit? It turns out that they don't just do it to be clean. As dedicated followers of a regular grooming routine, cats spend a lot of time making themselves look good, but this grooming behaviour is also tied to your kitty's physical and emotional well-being.

Why Do Cats Lick Their Paws?

Paw licking is one way that cats clean themselves — distributing saliva all over their body helps them with grooming. And primping takes up a lot of a cat's time: "Cats typically spend between 30 and 50 percent of their day grooming themselves, says Dr. Pamela Perry, a veterinarian and an animal behaviour resident of the Animal Behaviour Clinic at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine. Because evaporating saliva helps cats cool off when they're overheated, licking their paws provides the added benefit of cooling relief in high temperatures.

According to the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, one other reason that cats lick themselves is that licking — and grooming in general — releases endorphins, the body's feel-good hormone. It's a calming activity.

Brown tabby cat with their eyes closed while licking its front paw

Excessive Paw Licking

If your cat is paying too much attention to their paws (or other parts of their body), it likely indicates an underlying medical issue. Instead of trying to stop the habit itself, bring your kitty to the vet, so they can identify and treat the issue behind your cat's behaviour.

There are several physical and psychological issues that can lead to excessive grooming, explains the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, including:

  • Allergies
  • Fleas
  • Dry skin
  • A neurological condition
  • Stress or anxiety

Causes of cat anxiety include being separated from their pet parent; environmental changes, like moving into a new home; and perceived threats, such as having another pet in the household.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Is your cat licking too much? If you think their behaviour is excessive, keep a closer eye on them. Take note of when they lick their paws or other parts of their body and how long they spend doing it. Note any changes to their skin or fur, such as irritation or hair loss. Additionally, check for any signs of pain. If you notice any of these changes make sure to bring them in to their veterinarian. This information will help your vet determine whether your kitty is licking too frequently or too abrasively.

At the appointment, your vet will complete a physical exam of your cat. They'll probably run a few tests to help determine the cause of and treatment for their behaviour. Treatment will vary based on what your veterinarian diagnoses, but may include skin cream or shampoos, oral or injected anti-inflammatory medicine, changes to your cat's food, flea and tick prevention medicine, pheromone therapy or environmental modifications, says Vetwest. Adding that antidepressant or anti-anxiety medicine may also be an option in some cases..

Environmental modifications, or enrichments, are opportunities for your cat to get more activity and stimulation within your house. This can be as simple as feeding them using a food puzzle, providing them more opportunities to utilise their climbing instincts by installing cat trees or shelves, and having them hunt for their toys.

Your vet may also refer you to a cat behaviourist if they think that environmental or social modification could help, notes International Cat Care.

In general, your cat licking their paws isn't cause for concern. But if they show signs of excessive licking, speak with your vet as soon as possible. Together, you and your vet can determine the best treatment for your furry friend.

Contributor Bio

Christine O'Brien

Christine O'Brien

Christine Brovelli-O'Brien, Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, STEAM educator, professional member of the Cat Writers' Association (CWA), and a devoted pet parent. She writes about pets, education, and STEAM-y stuff. Her work also has appeared in NIU STEM Read, Fit Pregnancy, What to Expect When You're Expecting Word of Mom, and Care.com. Find and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @brovelliobrien

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