Tail sucking in cats

Tail Sucking in Cats

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Tail sucking is a common behaviour in which the kitten or adult cat sucks or chews the tip of the tail; it is similar to thumb sucking in children. Some cats will suck their tail compulsively, which can lead to hair loss and trauma.

Why do cats suck their tail?

Sucking is a natural reflex that goes back to infancy when kittens suckled from their mother, which was comforting. Some cats will continue to suck well into adulthood. Tails aren’t the only target, others include soft toys, clothing, blankets, people and other cats.

Boredom

Boredom can manifest in many ways, including destructive behaviour, excessive crying, tail sucking and other oral fixations.

Early separation from mother

Sucking behaviours are common in cats who were separated from their mother or weaned too early.

Self-comfort

Tail sucking is comforting to the cat and may occur when the cat is falling asleep or experiencing stress.

Studies reveal that premature babies had shorter hospital stays and thumb sucking soothed crying babies and re-optimise heartbeat and breathing.

Genetic predisposition

There is a higher incidence of tail sucking, wool sucking and pica (eating non-food objects) in Siamese and related breeds which suggests there may be a genetic component.

Is tail sucking dangerous?

Tail sucking is generally not dangerous as long as the behaviour isn’t compulsive or progressing to tail mutilation. Watch for signs of trauma and speak to a veterinarian if damage occurs.

Treatment

Cats who suck their tail find it comforting, and as long as he or she is not damaging the tail, it is not something which needs our intervention. Some cats will outgrow this behaviour; others may not. I had a cat who nursed from herself when she was happy or going to sleep. As the habit didn’t cause harm aside from some discolouration of her fur, I didn’t interfere or try to stop it.

If the cat has developed compulsive tail sucking and is damaging the tail, speak to your veterinarian. It will be necessary to rule out a possible medical cause such as chronic diarrhea, impacted anal glands, flea allergy dermatitis and allergies.

Once a medical cause has been eliminated, treatment options include environmental modification, medications and in some cases, where trauma has occurred, a caudectomy (partial amputation of the tail) will be necessary.

Environmental enrichment

The goal of environmental enrichment is to enrich the cat’s environment with play therapy, interactive toys, perches and cat trees which provide mental stimulation and physical exercise.

Redirection

Redirect the cat’s attention to a toy or a treat when he begins to suck his tail which may break the habit. Keep cat treats close by or an interactive food toy which the cat has to work at to get a treat can provide enough of a distraction the cat forgets about his or her tail.

Reduce stress

Cats are sensitive to change and thrive on routine. Keep things stable in the home by feeding and scheduling play at the same time, provide places the cat can safely retreat to if he or she is feeling stressed. Cats like high places to sit and survey their environment. Cat trees, vertical shelves, and other safe hiding places can provide a sense of safety.

Drug therapy

Tricyclic antidepressant (TCA)

  • Clomipramine (Anafranil/Clomicalm): The exact mechanism of action is not known, but it is thought to increase the activity of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which contributes to mood regulation and feelings of well-being and happiness.

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI)

  • Fluoxetine: A generic form of Prozac which works by preventing the brain from reabsorbing serotonin. In this way, fluoxetine helps the brain to maintain enough serotonin so that you the cat has a feeling of well-being, due to improved communication between brain cells.

What not to do

Don’t apply hot substances, garlic or bittering agents to the tail to deter the cat. It is unnecessary and has the potential to cause toxicity.

Don’t yell at the cat or physically punish the cat. At best, it is rewarding the behaviour with attention, and at worst it can cause the cat to fear you, which can in many cases exacerbate the problem.

Footnote

Tail sucking seems to bother people more than it does the cat. With some modifications, it may be possible to distract the cat or redirect this behaviour. However, as long as the tail sucking isn’t causing trauma to the tail, we can ignore it.




Julia Wilson is a cat expert with over 20 years of experience writing about a wide range of cat topics, with a special interest in cat health, welfare and preventative care.Julia lives in Sydney with her family, four cats and two dogs. She enjoys photography, gardening and running in her spare time.Full author bio Contact Julia