Why Do Cats Suckle? Top 6 Causes of Suckling in Cats

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Kittens have a powerful suckling and kneading reflex which is present from birth in all mammals, but what transpires when suckling and chewing continue into adulthood?

Typically, most cats will outgrow suckling behaviour post-weaning, however, certain cats will continue exhibiting this behaviour into adulthood. Suckling later in life is often associated with felines at a higher risk of developing overattachment and even obsessive-compulsive behaviour.

Let’s decode why a grown cat may perform this behaviour, whether or not you should be concerned, and what you can do to improve your cat’s emotional wellbeing.

What Is Cat Suckling?

When an adult cat exhibits suckling behaviour, he or she will simply suckle an object repetitively without consuming any material. This behavior is distinct from pica, which is a condition leading to the consumption of non-edible items.

Sucking is usually common in many feline breeds of all ages, but particularly in Oriental varieties (Siamese, Tonkinese, Balinese, and Burmese). Characteristically, it’s a non-harmful behaviour accompanied by purring and kneading of the front paws in response to owner attention or contact with a soft blanket. This behavior is retained from kittenhood, when it was associated with lactating behaviour.

An experimental study by Martin (1986) of seven mothers and their litters found that the volume of suckling dropped from four weeks following birth and infrequently occurred after seven weeks.

However, numerous breeders described kittens still suckling further than this period. And while this is uncertain whether it’s for nutrition or comfort, it’s vital to monitor your kitten or grownup cat in case of ingestion leading to gastrointestinal problems.

Reasons Why Adult Cats Suckle

Kitten biting a toy

Because it is a holdover behavior from kittenhood, suckling in adult cats is often associated with premature weaning—but there are other causes of suckling in cats, too!

It’s hard to determine the causes of cat suckling in adults, they can range from premature weaning to displacement behaviour. Below, we’ll explore some of the most common ones.

Intrinsic Behaviour Which Continues Into Adulthood

Innately, breastfeeding kittens knead through a rhythmic extension of their paws as well as claws while purring and pushing against their mother’s fur. This kneading movement promotes milk suction from the mammary gland until they are fully weaned.

This behaviour can continue into adulthood with a cat suckling and kneading items like a comfy blanket, piece of wool clothing, a fluffy toy, or even an owner’s armpit.

Abrupt Or Premature Weaning By The Queen

In certain cases of abrupt or early weaning by the queen, certain cats have been spotted attempting to suckle on non-dietary materials through kittenhood and in maturity.

Also Read: Weaning Kittens: Tips For Successful Weaning

Hand-reared kitties have been observed to cross-suckle on each other’s genitalia whilst adults have been seen suckling on soft fabrics, all highlighting the significance that kittens should always be kept with their moms and the weaning process must occur as naturally as possible as the queen chooses.

Lack Of Early Socialisation To Other Cats And Humans

Anecdotally, hand-raised orphans that don’t receive any contact with other kitties during the early socialisation to people phase are at a higher risk of developmental problems such as aggression, apprehension with a decreased coping mechanism to change within their environment.

Other moggies can become overly attached to their owners or handlers, trying to suckle from fingers or elbows as adults (Bradshaw, 2018).

This YouTube video shows an adult cat suckling on a blanket:

Suckling Can Also Be Indicative Of Chronic Stress

Chronic frustration and stress can also elicit behavioural changes, particularly when a cat loses control of a situation. The cat may respond passively or actively with high arousal and possible chronic displacement activities such as overgrooming or even wool sucking.

Genetic Predisposition To Wool And Tail Sucking Behaviour

Wool sucking is usually seen in younger cats less than one year of age. It usually comprises of a cat repetitively mouthing plus sucking on wooly objects like blankets, bathmats, sweaters, carpets, and even the owner’s hair or body parts with many categorizing it as a compulsive disorder, while tail sucking is when a kitten or adult cat sucks or chews on the tip of the tail.

In Oriental breeds, genetic factors have been found to influence wool-sucking behaviour, with some kitties progressing to ingestion of the original material being consumed known as Pica which requires daily monitoring and veterinary intervention since Pica can lead to digestive problems.

For Certain Cats, It’s A Sign Of Comfort And A Stress Relief

Lastly, an adult moggie may perform this behaviour as a sign of contentment or to simply relieve stress. For others, suckling conveys a sense of security and motherly reassurance.

Also Read: 5 Visual Signs of a Stressed Cat and How to Help

How To Discourage Or Stop Your Cat’s Suckling Behaviour?

If you’re concerned the suckling behaviour has intensified and causing harm to you or your cat or they started devouring non-edible items, try to discourage or stop the behaviour by making the following changes:

  • Remove all throws, blankets, and clothing that your cat likes to suckle on, and hide them in the cupboard.
  • If the behaviour hasn’t intensified, replace their favourite blanket or toy with a fabric that doesn’t consist of loose threads, is non-toxic, and contains no pieces that can be chewed or sucked off. Ideally, provide alternative chewing and sucking substrates that can’t be ingested.
  • Modify your cat’s diet and add soft hide chews or raw chicken wings/necks to encourage mastication. If you do include raw chicken wings or necks, make sure to use the correct safety precautions.
  • Redivert sucking on your elbow or hand to a teddy bear as a substitute after smearing your scent onto the soft toy. Offer that object every single time when they start suckling on you.
  • Plug in a Feliway diffuser to aid relaxation and reduce the need to suckle.
  • Don’t shout or punish your cat since that may exacerbate their state of anxiety even more.
  • Finally, arrange a veterinary examination to rule out any medical problems.

How To Fulfill Your Cat’s Emotional Needs

Pushka plays with a puzzle feeder created by the author, Melina.

To fulfill your cat’s emotional requirements you need a good insight into your cat’s natural behaviour and an understanding of how their physical and social environments impact their welfare.

First, Ensure Your Cat’s Environmental Needs Are Met

The American Association of Feline Practitioners and the International Society of Feline Medicine produced the Feline AAFP/ISFM Environmental Needs Guidelines which offers comprehensive information about cat’s needs and how these can be met within the home environment, particularly for indoor-only cats.

Offer Opportunities For Play And Predatory Behaviour

Boredom plus indoor confinement can worsen suckling. Engage your cat in simulated-predatory play and feeding behaviour with the use of toys and puzzle feeders. Puzzle feeders are objects which hold food and need to be manipulated in numerous ways to distribute nourishment.

Prevent Or Minimise Distress From Situations And Triggers As Much As Possible

It’s essential to try to minimise distress in cats who suckle in order to optimise their wellbeing. While it’s unrealistic to avoid all stressors, it’s critical to avoid some and reduce the effect of others. The best approach is to focus on anticipation when distress is likely to occur from a specific trigger or a situation and lessen it against its occurrence.

Encourage Harmonious Living In Multi-Cat Households

Promote harmonious multi-cat arrangement by choosing compatible individuals or acquire siblings to reduce anxiety in addition to conflict. Provide a suitable physical environment with sufficient resources scattered around the house with distinct entry/exit points for all cats whilst providing appropriate enrichment and equal owner attention.

Conclusion

Suckling may be annoying to an owner, however, it’s not harmful to your cat unless it becomes an obsessive-compulsive behaviour and includes gnawing of non-nutrient items which warrants a visit to a veterinarian.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do cats nurse on blankets?

Generally when a cat nurses on a blanket, this innate behaviour is associated with pleasure and a sense or relaxation, although it can also be indicative of anxiety. Remember to keep an eye on other behavioural changes that can indicate distress or pain.

Why do cats knead and suckle?

Kneading and suckling is an inborn response in cats from kittenhood. Hypotheses in adults consist of stress alleviation as well as self-comforting behaviour.

Why do some cats suckle their humans?

A grown-up cat would suckle their owner due to early weaning or as a result of unexpected separation from its mum. Kittens who’ve been hand raised or bottle-fed are at greater risk of sucking on their humans, some will grow out of it whilst others will continue sucking on body parts or soft items into adulthood.

View Sources

Atkinson, T. (2018). Practical Feline Behaviour. Wallingford, Oxfordshire, UK: CABI. Retrieved December 05, 2021

Bradshaw, J. (2018). Normal feline behaviour and why problem behaviours develop. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 20, 411-421. Retrieved December 01, 2021

Care, I. C. (2020, September 01). Module 3 Reproduction, Behavioural Development and Behavioural Health in Kittens. Advanced Feline Behaviour for Vet Profesisonals. UK. Retrieved December 02, 2021

Fraser, A. F. (2012). Feline Behaviour and Welfare. (S. Hulbert, Ed.) CAB International. Retrieved December 10, 2021

Heath, I. R. (2016). Feline Behavioral Health and Welfare. St Louis, MO: Elsevier. Page 142-143. Retrieved December 09, 2021

Helen Tuzio, T. E. (2004). FELINE BEHAVIOR GUIDELINES. (A. A. Practitioners, Compiler) USA: AAFP. Pae 25-27 Retrieved December 08, 2021

Sarah L H Ellis, I. R. (2013). AAFP and ISFM Feline Environmental Needs Guidelines. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 15, 219-230. Retrieved December 20, 2021

Sparkes, D. S. (2016). ISFM Guide to Feline Stress and Health; Managing negative emotions to improve feline health and wellbeing. Tisbury, Wiltshire, UK: International Cat Care. Retrieved December 13, 2021

About Melina Grin

Melina’s love of animals began in childhood, when she would care for sick or stray dogs and cats while dreaming of becoming a Vet. While working in the Veterinary field she found a distinct interest and passion in Small Animal Rehabilitation and Feline Behaviour. Melina is the proud director of Pet Nurture in Sydney, Australia (Unique Mobile Animal Wellness Centre specialising in Cats). Melina is currently studying to become a qualified Veterinary Nurse with a view to progressing to Animal Behaviour Therapy

2 thoughts on “Why Do Cats Suckle? Top 6 Causes of Suckling in Cats

  1. Sharlene Maritz

    I got my siamese male cat when he was six weeks old he is almost 4years old now. He lives to suckle on my gown and polar fleese blanket when he gets a chance. He only does this when he can reach these two items. Other times he doesn’t worry about suckling. I absolutly hosed myself the day he got on my shoulder to suckle my gown while I had it on and was kneeding me with front and back paws. Should I worry about this or is it normal?

    Reply
    1. Melina Grin Post author

      Hi Sharlene

      Sorry to hear you had to hose yourself the other day.

      Boredom, distress and indoor confinement can worsen suckling. It’s essential to minimize distress in cats who suckle in order to optimize their well-being. I recommend consulting your vet if you notice sudden behavioral changes such as overgrooming, clinginess, changes in sleep pattern and increased vocalization since some cats can develop over-attachment to their owner. If there are no recent behavioral or environmental changes, purchase a Feliway diffuser to aid with relaxation, redirect him onto his blanket and increase enrichment. Generally suckling isn’t harmful unless it becomes an obsessive-compulsive behavior warranting a vet visit.

      Hope this helps, keep us posted
      Melina

      Reply

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