We have all seen cats, which, perhaps out of the blue, smack or lick their lips, some doing it while they sleep. But have you ever wondered what this behavior hides?
As in our world, in cats’ world, individuals manifest different in certain situations. For example, cats wag their tail, make sounds, adopt a certain body position, and/or smack their lips.
In most cases, when you see your cat smacking its lips, there are no serious reasons to worry about, but there are times when this behavior can mean more than just a dry nose or mouth. As feline behavior specialists and veterinarians say, lip-licking is due to stress, anxiety or occurs when the cat is nauseous or suffering from various medical conditions. In other words, smacking their lips has several different causes.
We will talk about these causes in the following lines.
The cat’s tongue is covered with hundreds of hook-like structures (around 470 papillae or taste buds), with sandpaper-like texture; humans have over 9000 taste buds. The taste buds are faced backward and are used for grooming and cleaning.
This arrangement of the papillae acts like a brush when the cat grooms itself, gathering all the hair that falls out and dirt. Over time, swallowed hair along with dirt and other debris will turn into clumps of hair in their stomach (hairballs).
Cats have this behavior for various reasons, which may seem quite strange to some people.
If your cat smacks or licks its lips from time to time, apparently for no reason, you should not be scared because in general, this behavior is very normal in cats – it comes from their natural hunting instinct.
- Grooming after eating;
- Stress/being afraid or nervous/anxiety;
- Compulsive disorders;
- Oral diseases – stomatitis, ulcers, dental problems (plaque and tartar), etc.
- Bites or foreign bodies around the lip area;
- Hypersalivation (ptyalism);
- Dry mouth (xerostomia);
- Something tastes funny;
- Feline Upper Respiratory Infection.
Our beloved pets often moisten their nose with their tongues if it is dry or to explore the environment. Being a perfectly normal behavior, it can be easily overlooked by the owner when it is due to stress, nervousness, or anxiety.
Lips licking that come with frantic tail movements, ears turned sideways or backwards, or other behavioral changes are due to nervousness. It is very important that cat owners pay attention to the body language of their pets to avoid unpleasant situations. An example would be when the owner is bitten by the cat because he didn’t recognize the signals it emits when it is nervous and “say”: Hey, leave me alone! I will bite you and scratch you and you won’t like it!
Another type of lip licking due to stress/anxiety is after hissing; this being called a displacement behavior.There are some cats that have this kind of behavior but without the hissing. It usually occurs when there is something that makes them stressed/anxious. This licking on the lips with or without hissing can progress to clawing, biting, or fleeing. A good example is when you take your cat to the vet and place her on the consultation table. Once she is up there, she will decide if she will be aggressive (hiss, bite) or run. Some cats will choose to smack their lips as a calming mechanism – they will groom themselves for seconds or minutes to calm down.
Other people claim that smacking their lips before hissing is similar to a person who clears her throat before saying something not very comfortable. In other words, through lip licking, cats prepare their throats and mouths for hissing and biting.
Like humans, cats can suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorders. These are manifested by excessive licking on the lips, and especially on the fur. If your cat has a compulsive disorder, your vet might recommend you natural remedies or nutritional supplement to reduce the stress levels.
In general, nausea also causes mild hypersalivation (excess saliva). This excess saliva will cause the animal to lick its lips more often than usual to get rid of it. The most common causes of nausea in cats are hairballs, stress, various gastrointestinal diseases, poisoning, infections, and some medications.
Oral diseases include stomatitis (inflammation of the mouth and tongue, which is mainly caused by infections), mouth ulcers, dental problems [tartar and plaque, gingivitis, broken or abscessed tooth, or an object stuck in the mouth (such as a fish bone)], etc.. Excess plaque and tartar on your cat’s teeth will irritate its gums and create discomfort.
Any of these can make the cat smack its lips more than usual.
If you notice any changes in your cat’s mouth, you should contact a veterinarian to diagnose and treat the problem.
A household with several cats or cats that are allowed to go outside can fight with their kin, especially if they are males, leaving marks from the scratches and bites in different areas of the body, including the lips. Also, foreign bodies such as pine needles, fish bones, wood chips, etc. can get stuck in your cat’s lip making her lick or smack often that area.
If you notice foreign bodies stuck in your cat’s lips or marks on its body, go with it to the vet to give her proper treatment.
Hypersalivation syndrome in cats or ptyalism or excessive drooling is the production of excess saliva that causes the animal to salivate in a (sometimes) annoying way. This saliva can have different aspects: foamy, sticky, or very liquid. There can be many causes of excess salivation, and some cats simply salivate when they are happy! But hypersalivation can also be a symptom of a more serious problem, such as intoxication, but it can also occur if the cat is stressed or anxious.
If nausea is accompanied by hypersalivation, ptyalism can also lead to nausea. Excess saliva can make your cat feel nauseous (we have listed the causes for nausea above).
In any case, the cat will tend to lick its lips to remove the excess saliva.
Another cause for lips licking may be a dry mouth or throat, which usually occurs due to hairballs, but may occur if the cat suffers from kidney disease, dehydration, or fever.
If you notice that your cat is trying to vomit, but it can’t, it seems too hot to the touch, the coat has lost its shine, an unpleasant smell comes from its mouth, the animal has lost weight, etc. consult a veterinarian in order to establish a diagnosis and treatment as soon as possible. It is better to be a false alarm than something serious!
Poisoning with chemicals (household products, aromatic oils, etc.) and toxic plants for cats (philodendron, ficus, lily of the valley, oleander, digitalis, and more) can be the cause of hypersalivation in your cat. In this case, an emergency consultation is necessary, as it could be lethal to your cat.
Oral contact with certain animal poisons, including the poisonous frogs and processionary caterpillars, is another possible cause. The processionary caterpillar is particularly dangerous; its venom can cause serious damage to the skin, even lead to necrosis!
The cat may also begin to salivate profusely after ingesting food or a product (such as cleaning chemicals from the floor, dirt, mold, soap, etc.) with an unpleasant taste or after taking a medicine, without the latter being toxic to all of them.
Another cause may be the side effect of certain medicines, in which case this should be mentioned in the package leaflet. Antiparasitic products can also cause abnormal salivation if the cat licks itself after a pipette was applied or if it chewed the deworming pill (it has a bitter taste), for example. Again, don’t worry right away, but watch your cat’s progress: if the symptom lasts, it’s best to see your veterinarian to make sure your cat doesn’t have a toxic reaction to the product.
Also, there are some smells that can trigger your cat in licking its lips because they make them feel nauseous when smelling them. Another example is when your cat has an appetite (she goes to her food bowl), smells the food, but it doesn’t eat it, and after she licks her lips – most of the times this happens because the cat feel nauseous.
It is also worth noting that cats that lick their lips after eating actually clean their whiskers.
Like humans, cats can suffer from allergies too. Some allergies can be caused by various microorganisms that enter their respiratory system (pollen, dust) or that are irritating to the skin and mucous membranes (hay grass, mites, etc.). These microorganisms, in addition to having an irritating effect, can also cause stress to the animal, which will lead to hypersalivation. If you notice that your cat is grooming more than usual, he scratches itself very often, etc. it is better to take it to a veterinarian.
This disease is caused by bacteria or viruses that are confined to the upper respiratory tract – nose, throat, and sinuses. It can have an irritating effect, which will lead to excessive licking of the lips. The main symptoms are sneezing, cough, excessive salivation, fever, congested and dry nose, loss of appetite, weight loss.
If you notice that your cat is sneezing constantly or starting to cough, go with it to a veterinarian for proper care.
These would be the main causes for which cats smack their lips, but why they lick their lips when they sleep or when they look at us?
It can be one of the reasons that I mentioned above, especially if your cat has a dry mouth or throat, but it can also happen when it’s dreaming. Yes, cats do dream! So, if your cat smacks its lips only when it is sleeping, there is no reason to worry!
As with dogs, licking their lips can also mean anticipation, depending on what is happening around your cat. For example, if food is prepared, smacking its lips can be assumed to be an anticipation of a meal, and in other circumstances, it can be a sign that your cat is feeling the danger and becomes stressed.
Licking their lips or the air when you are trying to pet or scratch your cat might be a sign of a skin condition – that area may be itching her.
It is always best to notice other body language changes as well that accompany lip-licking.
If your cat licks his lips from time to time there is no reason to panic. However, if you notice that your cat is starting to have this behavior more often than usual, then it is a good idea to consult a veterinarian, who can guide you accordingly.
If your cat has enough drinking water and no irritation around its nose or mouth, the excessive licking could be related to stress.
If licking on the lips is accompanied by coughing, sneezing, bad breath, excessive scratching, hair loss, or other symptoms from those mentioned above, you should contact your veterinarian as soon as possible, as it is obvious that your cat has a medical condition.
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I hope this article answers all your questions about why cats smack their lips!
Happy Cat Care!
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