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Excessive Paw Licking in Cats Explained

When cats lick their paws excessively, owners must know how to recognize and deal with the issue.

February 20, 2024 4 min read
Excessive Paw Licking in Cats Explained

If you've spent any time around cats, you won't feel any surprise at the sight of a cat licking its paws, most commonly as a necessary step in cleaning itself. You might even admire your cat's fastidiousness and cleanliness. However, even the healthiest, most normal feline grooming habits can be taken to extremes, with some cats licking their paws constantly or obsessively. If your cat displays this abnormal behavior, read on to discover what it might mean, when you should consult a veterinarian, and what a medical expert can do for your furry friend.

Normal Paw Licking Behaviors

Paw licking is an everyday activity in a normal cat's life. Cats can spend up to half of their typical day cleaning their fur. They do this by first licking their paws, covering them with saliva and then rubbing the head, ears, and face until these areas are clean. This behavior partly accounts for the reason cats usually require less frequent bathing than dogs.

Paw licking can also help a cat remain comfortable in hot weather. As the saliva on its paws, head and face evaporates, it draws heat away from the skin and helps paw pads cope better with hot pavement and other sun-baked surfaces. Last but not least, cats simply enjoy licking their paws. The act of paw licking triggers the release of "feel-good" chemicals called endorphins, boosting a cat's sense of happiness and well being.

Physical Reasons for Excessive Paw Licking

For all its benefits, feline paw licking can get out of hand. Cats who can't seem to leave their paws alone even for a moment may be experiencing a medical issue that compels this behavior. 

Common medical reasons for excessive paw licking include:

  • Infections - A bacterial or fungal infection in the skin can cause significant pain and itching. Your cat may be trying to ease the discomfort of an infected paw, or it may be licking its paws frequently to groom an infected patch elsewhere.
  • Injuries - A painful injury may prompt a cat to lick a damaged paw or apply soothing saliva to an injured ear or face.
  • Allergic reactions - A cat's paws can come into contact with all kinds of allergens. Even the wrong kind of food can cause uncomfortable allergic reactions throughout the body, including the paws, compelling the cat to lick the irritated zone.
  • Pests and parasites - Fleas, ticks, mites, and other invaders can cause reddened, itchy skin, which then leads to excessive paw licking.

Psychological Reasons for Excessive Paw Licking

Your cat might lick their paws obsessively even if he or she doesn't suffer from a physical irritation or condition. Keep in mind that the licking action has a mood-elevating effect. Your cat may suffer from:

  • Stress - Depressed, anxious, or stressed-out cats may feel the need for some extra endorphins. Constant paw licking can soothe their nerves and make them feel more at ease.
  • Lack of stimulation - Cats that don't get enough physical exercise and/or mental stimulation during the day can get so bored that they resort to licking their paws as a pleasant diversion.

How Your Veterinarian Can Help

In some cases, owners can see right away that their cats have begun licking their paws much more frequently than normal. If you aren't sure whether this change in behavior applies to your kitty, watch for accompanying signs of physical or emotional distress. Odd facial expressions and changes in appetite can indicate pain, while inappropriate elimination might indicate anxiety. Loss of hair could mean ringworm, while a rash could signify an allergy. Take these signs as your cue to schedule a veterinary appointment.

A comprehensive wellness exam can help your veterinarian identify the underlying cause of your cat's paw licking obsession. Obvious problems such as infections, rashes, and injuries can respond well to antibiotics, analgesics, and anti-inflammatory drugs. Allergy testing can pinpoint any substances your cat needs to avoid in the future, including food allergies that might require a special diet. Antihistamines can help keep chronic allergy symptoms at bay, reducing your cat's compulsion to lick its paws. Preventative medications can help keep pests and parasites from irritating your cat's paws, face, ears, and head.

Paw licking due to psychological triggers can also benefit from veterinary treatment and owner guidance. For instance, if a new addition to the household or other big life transition has created anxiety, your vet can advise you on how to help your cat endure these changes more easily. A bored cat may give up its paw licking habit once you give it plenty of toys, affection, and interactive challenges to occupy its time.

Like humans, cats can suffer from biochemical imbalances that cause depression or anxiety. If your cat has such an issue, your veterinarian may prescribe medications such as fluoxetine, clomipramine, or amitriptyline.

Give Your Cat's Paws a Helping Hand

You can help your cat enjoy a happy, hygienic, and comfortable life that includes the normal amount of feline grooming instead of excessive paw licking. Ask your vet for advice, schedule any necessary medical treatment or lifestyle changes, and keep an eye out for any future trouble signs. At times like these, humans are a feline's best friend!

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