Do Cats Lick Out Of Anxiety?

Licking is normal grooming behavior for cats. They regularly lick themselves as a way to clean their fur, reduce loose hair, improve circulation, and relax. However, excessive or anxious licking can be a sign of distress. This article explores the difference between typical grooming and licking due to anxiety in cats. It covers the causes of anxiety in cats, what anxious behaviors may look like, and how to prevent, minimize or treat anxiety in felines. The goal is to help cat owners understand the causes and implications of anxious licking so they can address it appropriately.

Normal Cat Grooming

Grooming is an essential part of a cat’s daily routine and serves several important purposes. Cats spend between 30-50% of their waking hours grooming themselves [1]. Grooming helps cats keep their coat and skin healthy. The act of licking spreads saliva over the fur, which acts as a cleaning agent. Saliva contains enzymes that break down dirt, odors, and parasites like fleas. Grooming also distributes natural oils from their skin throughout their coat, conditioning it and preventing matts.

In addition to cleanliness, grooming is a social behavior for cats. Cats that live together will groom each other, strengthening social bonds. Mothers also groom their kittens as a sign of affection and comfort. Grooming releases endorphins, so the act makes cats feel relaxed and content. For all these reasons, regular grooming is normal and healthy feline behavior.

Excessive Licking as a Sign of Anxiety

Anxiety is one of the most common causes of excessive grooming behavior in cats. When cats experience prolonged stress or anxiety from environmental factors like changes in routine or living conditions, it can manifest physically as obsessive licking, biting, or chewing of their fur and skin (source). This disorder is known as psychogenic alopecia or overgrooming.

According to the MSCPA, psychogenic alopecia is a stress-related, obsessive compulsive disorder where cats suddenly cannot stop grooming themselves excessively, leading to bald spots, sores, and skin damage (source). Since grooming is a natural calming mechanism for cats, anxiety can trigger overgrooming as the cat tries to soothe itself. The act of licking releases endorphins that make the cat feel temporarily better.

Therefore, excessive licking and overgrooming can signify that a cat is experiencing anxiety about changes in its home or environment. If anxiety is the root cause, treating the anxiety through conditioning, medication, or environmental changes may help reduce the obsessive licking behavior.

Other Causes of Excessive Licking

While anxiety is a common cause of excessive licking in cats, there are some other possible causes as well that should be ruled out. These include allergies, infections, and parasites.

Allergies can cause itchiness and skin irritation that leads to excessive licking and overgrooming. Common allergy triggers for cats include flea bites, food ingredients, pollen, and household products like cleaners or fabrics. A vet can help diagnose allergy triggers through skin tests or elimination trials.

Certain infections, especially fungal or bacterial skin infections, can also cause irritation leading to excessive licking. Skin fold infections are particularly common in breeds like Persians. Infections will usually require medication prescribed by a vet to clear up.

Parasites like fleas or mange can cause intense itching and discomfort that prompts frequent licking and biting at the skin. Fleas are the most common parasite, but others like mites or ringworm are possibilities too. A vet can diagnose parasites through skin scrapings or hair and fecal samples.

If excessive licking is focused on one area, that can indicate an underlying medical issue like an infection, parasite, or skin disorder prompting the behavior. Seeking veterinary advice is recommended to properly diagnose and treat any medical conditions contributing to overgrooming.

Signs of Anxiety in Cats

There are several common signs that may indicate a cat is suffering from anxiety or stress. Some of the most notable signs include:

Hiding – An anxious cat may hide more often, retreating to small, enclosed spaces like under beds or inside closets where they feel more secure. Hiding is a defensive mechanism in response to feeling afraid or overwhelmed.

Aggression – A stressed cat may become more aggressive than usual, especially if they feel cornered or threatened. Aggressive behaviors like hissing, growling, swatting, scratching, and biting can indicate a cat is feeling highly anxious. According to PetMD, aggression is a common symptom of fear and anxiety disorders in cats (source).

Restlessness – Anxious cats may pace or run around the house excessively. They may have trouble settling down and relaxing. Restlessness is a sign of inner tension and stress. Cats may also exhibit repetitive behaviors like excessive grooming due to feeling on edge.

Causes of Anxiety in Cats

There are several potential causes of anxiety in cats. Some of the most common include:

Environment Changes – Changes to a cat’s environment, like moving homes, can be very stressful and trigger anxiety. Cats are creatures of habit and prefer consistency. Major changes disrupt their routine and make them feel insecure.

Lack of Routine – Cats thrive on regular schedules for things like feeding, play time, and litter box cleaning. When their routine is disrupted, it can create uncertainty and stress. Making sure your cat has a consistent daily routine can help minimize anxiety.

Health Issues – Sometimes anxiety can stem from an underlying medical condition. Issues like hyperthyroidism, dementia, or chronic pain can all prompt anxious behaviors in cats. Have your vet examine your cat to rule out any medical causes.

Other potential triggers include conflict with other pets, loud noises, confinement, trauma, or a lack of mental stimulation. Paying attention to what precedes your cat’s anxious behaviors can help identify the root cause.

Preventing Anxiety in Cats

There are several ways you can help prevent anxiety in cats. One of the most important is providing enrichment through interactive toys, scratching posts, cat trees, and other items that allow cats to explore and engage their natural behaviors. Rotate toys to keep them interesting and try toys like food puzzle feeders that stimulate your cat mentally. You can also consider adopting a second cat so they can provide companionship and enrichment for each other.

Maintaining routines is another key way to prevent anxiety. Cats feel most secure when their schedule is predictable. Feed them at the same times each day and avoid abruptly changing their environment. When introducing anything new, do it gradually over multiple days or weeks so they can adjust. Stick to a regular cleaning schedule for their litter boxes as dirty boxes are a common source of stress. Overall, keeping your home calm and consistent will lower your cat’s anxiety levels.

Additionally, providing plenty of vertical territory like cat trees and wall-mounted shelves allows cats to observe their environment from a safe vantage point. Place the cat tree near a window so they can watch outdoor activity. Cats also benefit from having hiding spots to retreat to, so provide enclosed beds and cardboard boxes around your home.

Lastly, use synthetic pheromone products like Feliway to help relax your cat. Pheromones mimic cats’ natural facial pheromones and signal safety and security. You can find pheromone diffusers, sprays, and collars. These products are very effective at preventing stressful situations from triggering anxiety in cats.

Treating Anxiety in Cats

There are several methods for treating anxiety in cats, including using pheromones, medication, and training.

Synthetic pheromones like Feliway can help reduce anxiety by mimicking cat facial pheromones. Sprays, diffusers, and collars containing these synthetic pheromones have been shown to reduce stress behaviors in cats. Pheromones may be most effective for mild anxiety or when combined with other treatments.

Medications prescribed by a vet such as anti-anxiety drugs, sedatives, and anti-depressants can also help cats with anxiety. Medication works best for cats with severe anxiety or when paired with behavioral modification. Common medications for cat anxiety include buspirone, benzodiazepines like alprazolam, and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors like fluoxetine.

Behavioral training can help a cat overcome fears and phobias through desensitization and counterconditioning. With this technique, the cat is exposed to mild versions of a stressor, while being rewarded with treats and praise for calm behavior. Over time, the cat learns to associate the trigger with positive outcomes instead of anxiety. This type of training requires patience but can lead to lasting results.

A combination approach of medication, pheromones, and training is often most effective for treating feline anxiety. Consulting with a veterinary behaviorist can help determine the right plan for an individual cat’s needs.

When to See a Vet

If your cat’s excessive licking is causing wounds or sores, it’s important to take them to the vet. Open wounds can become infected and lead to further health complications. According to the Cornell Feline Health Center, “Licking that leads to bare patches of skin or wounds needs prompt veterinary attention” (

Some signs that indicate your cat’s excessive licking requires veterinary attention include:

  • Bald patches
  • Broken skin or sores from licking
  • Scabs or crusty skin
  • Hair loss
  • Red, inflamed areas

A vet can examine your cat to determine the underlying cause, whether it’s anxiety, allergies, infection, or another health issue. They can provide medication or treatment to address any skin infections or wounds caused by excessive licking. The vet may also recommend anti-anxiety medication or behavioral therapy if anxiety is the root cause.

It’s important not to ignore excessive licking that leads to wounds, as it can greatly impact your cat’s health and quality of life. Consulting a vet provides the best chance at resolving the issue and preventing ongoing damage from licking.


In summary, cats do groom themselves excessively at times as a result of anxiety. Licking to the point of hair loss or skin damage can signal an underlying issue. While some licking is normal cat behavior, excessive licking may be triggered by stress, boredom, health problems, or other factors. If your cat is licking compulsively, pay attention to potential sources of anxiety in its environment. Reduce stressors when possible and provide stimulation through playtime and cat towers. Consult your vet to rule out medical causes. With patience and care, you can help soothe your anxious cat and curb its excessive licking behavior.

Scroll to Top