Kittens, and sometimes mature cats, often suckle on people's elbows, fingers, and clothing while purring and kneading their paws. They almost look like they are nursing. While the behavior may seem strange to you, it's normal for your cat. Still, it helps to understand why your cat does these things in an effort to feel reassured.
Why Your Cat Is Suckling
Cats that engage in this type of behavior may:
Have been orphaned young or weaned too early. Some kittens find the behavior comforting (an action akin to a baby sucking his or her thumb). Suckling may be your cat's way of self-soothing.
Suffer anxiety, especially if they were weaned from their mother and siblings before six weeks of age. Changes in your home, your cat's environment, or your cat's health can cause anxiety and stress, which may lead to changes in your pet's behavior. Also, a cat who was orphaned may be more likely to suffer separation anxiety (from you).
Have OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). Cats who live entirely indoors often develop compulsive disorders. Oriental breeds are more likely than other cats to have OCD. Kittens who are weaned too early also may be more prone to becoming obsessive compulsive later in life. While it may not be possible to cure your cat's compulsive disorder, your veterinarian can offer advice about things you can do to reduce the frequency of the behavior.
Be sick. Middle-aged and older cats in particular may experience changes in behavior as a result of hyperthyroidism. A common glandular disorder among cats, the disease usually develops between the age of 12 and 13 years. Symptoms generally include weight loss despite increased appetite, excessive thirst, and increased urination. Some cats become hyperactive.
Some cats also engage in wool sucking -- chewing at fabrics like blankets, curtains, and sweaters. Sometimes they suck on areas of their own bodies or the tail of another cat. Although wool sucking is usually harmless as most kittens eventually outgrow the behavior, not all cats do.
A common reason for the behavior is being weaned before the kitten is physically or emotionally ready. Although young kittens weaned early may be able to handle eating solid foods, they often lack the emotional comfort suckling provides.
Wool sucking present in mature cats can become an obsessive behavior. Some cats begin to ingest materials that can make them sick by blocking the intestines or causing other intestinal problems. While not all cats persistently engage in wool sucking, they may revert to the behavior whenever they are stressed. You can help by:
Finding ways to reduce your cat's stress
Providing your cat with safe, plastic toys to chew on
Making certain your cat doesn't have a medical problem, such as an allergy, fungal infection, or nutritional deficiency, that could be contributing to the behavior
Talking to your pet's vet about prescribing anti-anxiety medications for OCD
If you are concerned about your cat's suckling habit, consult a veterinarian or animal doctor, such as those at West Lake Animal Hospital.