The Curious Case of Belly Button Licking. Why Does My Cat Do This Weird Behavior?

Introduction

Cats licking their owners is a common feline behavior that often leaves cat parents curious. You may have noticed your cat exhibiting seemingly random licking behavior, targeting areas like your hands, feet, legs, or even belly button. While this behavior may seem peculiar, there are several possible explanations behind why cats lick their owners.

In this article, we’ll explore some of the most common theories behind this quirky cat conduct. Understanding the potential motivations can provide insight into your cat’s actions. We’ll also cover when excessive licking may indicate an underlying medical issue, and how to curb unwanted licking behavior.

Common Theories

One common theory is that cats lick skin because it tastes salty from sweat and oils. Cats have a strong sense of taste and may lick human skin simply because they enjoy the salty flavor. According to petMD, cats have taste receptors tuned to amino acids on their tongues, allowing them to detect the saltiness on skin (1).

Another reason cats lick humans is to pick up scents from scent glands. Cats have scent glands in various areas of their body, including their cheeks and tail area. When they lick human skin, they deposit some of their own scent. This is a friendly gesture that marks the human as someone familiar (2).

Licking is also a way for cats to show affection. It is comparable to kissing in humans. For cats, licking is a grooming behavior typically reserved for close companions. When your cat licks you, it is showing care, building social bonds, and creating positive associations through touch (3).

Salty Skin

Cats have a limited ability to taste sweetness due to having only about one-quarter the taste buds that humans have. However, cats have taste receptors dedicated to detecting amino acids, which means they can taste meaty flavors and salt. When cats lick human skin, they are often licking up salty sweat. Areas like the belly button and armpits tend to collect sweat, making them extra enticing spots for cats to lick.

Licking salty skin gives cats a pleasurable taste sensation. More than that, the salt and minerals in sweat have nutritional value for cats. Licking human skin can provide cats with minerals like potassium and sodium that their bodies need. So licking salty belly buttons and skin may provide cats with some health benefits.

Scent Glands

One theory suggests that the smell coming from your belly button intrigues your cat’s strong sense of smell. According to the American Chemical Society, the scent produced by belly button bacteria is unique to each person.[1] Cats have an excellent sense of smell that is 14 times better than humans.[2] They use their sense of smell to gather information about their environment. When your cat sniffs your belly button, the unique human scent likely piques their natural curiosity.

In addition, cats have scent glands in their faces, paws and tails. When they rub against you, they are marking you with their own scent and gathering your scent in return. Your belly button may produce smells that intrigue your cat, prompting them to lick the area as they explore the scent.

Showing Affection

One of the most common reasons cats lick their owners is to show affection. Social grooming is an important bonding behavior for cats that stems from kittenhood when the mother cat would lick her kittens to groom them and show care. This behavior releases oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone,” which helps promote social bonding and emotional attachment.

When cats lick and groom their owners, it stimulates the same bonding hormones and allows them to show love, care, and affection for their human companions. Grooming and licking is also a relaxing and pleasurable experience for cats that creates a closer connection. Gentle, soft licks are a clear sign that your cat sees you as a close companion they want to take care of.

According to https://www.pumpkin.care/blog/why-does-cat-lick-me/, many cats continue licking behaviors from kittenhood into adulthood as a way to soothe themselves and create attachments with their owners.

Medical Causes

Excessive licking can sometimes be caused by medical issues like skin infections, parasites, or neurological problems. Skin infections allow bacteria to multiply, causing itchiness that cats try to soothe by licking excessively. Parasites like fleas, mites, or ringworm can also lead to intense itchiness and discomfort that leads to overgrooming.

Neurological issues like overstimulation, epilepsy, or cognitive dysfunction syndrome may also cause cats to lick compulsively. The repetitive motion may be soothing or reflexive for cats with these conditions. For example, cats with cognitive dysfunction syndrome, similar to dementia in humans, may lick due to confusion or as a residual habit from kittenhood.

According to PetMD, medical issues like skin infections, parasites, and neurological problems should be ruled out by a veterinarian if a cat is licking excessively. Treatment will depend on the underlying cause, but may include antifungals, antibiotics, anti-parasitics, or medication to control neurological symptoms.

When to Seek Help

Excessive licking that leads to irritation, bald spots, or open wounds is a cause for concern. According to the Cornell Feline Health Center, excessive licking and grooming can lead to feline psychogenic alopecia, which is hair loss due to overgrooming 1. Bald patches, irritated skin, and sores from licking should prompt a veterinary visit.

It’s also important to seek veterinary care if the excessive licking is accompanied by other symptoms like appetite changes, lethargy, anxiety, or GI issues. These may indicate an underlying medical condition causing the behavior. A vet can run tests to diagnose potential causes like allergies, parasites, infections, or pain 2. Early intervention can help treat the condition and stop the excessive licking.

Redirecting the Behavior

If your cat’s licking seems obsessive or is causing bald patches, you may want to redirect their licking impulse. There are a couple approaches you can try:

Provide alternative surfaces for licking. Scratching posts, cat trees, and scratch pads give cats an acceptable place to satisfy their urge to lick and scratch. Direct your cat to these surfaces when they try to lick you. You can also attach sisal rope or tough scratching pads to furniture to protect it and give kitty approved scratching spots.

Discourage through distraction. If your cat starts licking you excessively, engage them in play with interactive cat toys. Laser pointers, feather wands, and motorized toys that your cat has to chase are good options for distraction. You can also place catnip toys within easy reach to provide an appealing alternative when the urge to lick strikes.

Satisfying Curiosity

A cat’s natural instinct is to be curious and investigate their surroundings. This investigative nature can lead them to exhibit behaviors like licking belly buttons in an attempt to explore and satisfy their curiosity. One way to redirect this energy is by providing mental stimulation with toys, play time, and scratching posts.

Interactive toys like feather wands, laser pointers, and treat balls allow cats to act on their hunting instincts. Dedicate 10-15 minutes a day to engage your cat with play. Rotate toys to keep them interesting and exciting. Place scratching posts around your home so your cat has outlets for scratching and stretching their legs.

Another way to satisfy curiosity is with catnip. The chemicals in catnip trigger investigative behavior and energetic play when smelled by cats. Providing catnip toys can fulfill your cat’s desire to explore new things. Just be sure to monitor them while using catnip to prevent overstimulation.

Meeting your cat’s needs for mental enrichment will help redirect their focus away from inappropriate behaviors. A mind that is actively engaged through hunting, scratching, and catnip is less likely to be bored and searching for stimulation through licking belly buttons.

Conclusion

There are a number of theories as to why cats may lick their owner’s belly buttons. The main reasons fall into either biological causes such as taste, scent, or affection, or medical causes such as obsessive behaviors. While occasional licking may be harmless, persistent licking may indicate an underlying issue that requires medical attention, especially if accompanied by other symptoms.

The best approach is to observe your cat’s full range of behaviors and patterns. Try redirecting licking to more appropriate targets, satisfying curiosity through play, or minimizing triggers. Overall, remain attentive to changes and consult your veterinarian if the behavior becomes problematic. Through patience and care, you can reach an understanding with your beloved feline friend.

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