In previous Catster articles, I’ve posted many pictures of my adorable kitten Norton, who came into our household this past August and is quickly turning into a beautiful and wonderful young adult. Norton was rescued with other litter mates at about three weeks of age, and no momma cat was present. (The kittens were found outside, as I understand, and the momma cat may have been killed by predators.) Norton and his litter mates were lovingly fostered for the next few months by a woman in a nearby town. I learned of these kittens when I made a trip to that town this summer for veterinary care for another cat. Norton came home with me in late summer, and his litter mates also found a home this fall.
About a week into Norton’s life at our house, we noticed that he was suckling himself, using one of his own nipples. He’d go at it in a really focused way, and knead his paws at the same time, purring loudly. Having no experience with this, we took him to the vet, who reassured us that the behavior was nothing to worry about. She noted that the nipple was not inflamed or infected. The vet said that kittens may outgrow this behavior, and that sometimes suckling happens when a kitten has been orphaned too young. The latter had been something I wondered about.
Still, I wanted to find out more. Would this behavior go away? Did it mean he was stressed or just contented? If I distracted him, would he stop? (When Norton suckles, which now seems to be occurring less and less, nothing can distract him.)
Suckling can occur when cats suck on their nipples, other areas of skin, and other objects. Cats might suckle on rugs, your skin tags, your ears, or your fingers. Jamie Bluebell came to us as a kitten and for a very brief time, she would suckle on a skin tag on my husband’s armpit. She also liked to suck on the frames of his glasses. But Jamie got over it fairly quickly, and from what we know, we think that Jamie was not orphaned as young as Norton.
Causes can include being separated from mom too early. Ideally, kittens should not be weaned from mom earlier than six weeks. But according to ASPCA information online, suckling can also be a sign of stress, compulsive behavior, or even just happiness or contentment. It’s a hard behavior to nail down.
Sometimes it’s harmless. But sometimes, according to this Catster article, cats or kittens can do damage to each other or themselves if they suckle too hard or for too long. The article refers to what is probably a high-stress situation — kittens in a Humane Society who are motherless and suckling each other to the point of damage.
My vet proposed no solution. She saw no reason to be concerned in Norton’s case. However, if it really bothers you, or you sense that your cat may be going at it a little too hard, check out this neat pillow (The Catsifier) featured in a Catster article. These seem to be in limited supply, but it sounds as if they’re effective.
If you’re not concerned about suckling and your cat continues, you can try to make the situation a little safer. For example, if your cat loves to suckle blankets, make sure that the blanket fabric doesn’t pill or have loose threads that your cat could swallow.
Obviously, trying to physically stop your cat from suckling (in the moment) or yelling at your cat when he’s suckling are not good solutions. If your cat is suckling from stress, this will only stress him more.
Most of what I’ve read (and observed at home) say to me that suckling is not a bad thing. It seems that Norton is getting comfort, and he’s not acting like he’s doing it from stress. The site is not infected, as my vet pointed out, and we’re keeping an eye on that. The frequency of suckling gradually seems to be diminishing. And if we’re playing with Norton, or snuggling, suckling seems to be far from his mind. So I’ll wait it out, and see what happens. In my situation, I’m not worried. Norton seems happy and not stressed or compulsive.
In short — and the ASPCA article worded this in a helpful way — if the suckling is interfering with your cat’s quality of life, then it’s time to seek help. If your cat is damaging his skin, or the skin of another, or seems to be suckling as a kind of stress response, seek help. Get the help of a certified cat behaviorist or your veterinarian.
Have you ever had a suckling cat? What did you do about it? Let us know in the comments!
Read more on suckling and cat behavior:
About Catherine Holm: Told that she is funny but doesn’t know it, accused of being an unintentional con artist by her husband, quiet, with frequent unannounced bursts into dancing liveliness, Cat Holm loves writing about, working for, and living with cats. She is the author of the cat-themed memoir Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time, the creator of Ann Catanzaro cat fantasy story gift books, and the author of a short story collection about people and place. She loves to dance, be outside whenever possible, read, play with cats, make music, do and teach yoga, and write. Cat lives in the woods, which she loves as much as really dark chocolate, and gets regular inspiration shots along with her double espresso shots from the city.