Why do cats lick the floor?
Licking the floor can be a sign of anxiety, boredom, food residue, condensation or curiosity. It is usually harmless and self-limiting, however, if it goes on for an extended period, or occurs regularly, it may be an obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Excessive floor licking is frequently lumped in with pica, a form of obsessive-compulsive behaviour characterised by the ingestion of non-food objects such as clothing or rocks. Some cats who have pica may also engage in floor licking, but floor licking is not pica.
Cleaning product residue
Some cats may be attracted to traces of floor cleaner on the surface. Bleach in particular seems to appeal to a lot of cats. Obviously, this runs the risk of poisoning if the cat ingests floor cleaning products and floors should always be completely dry before cats are allowed back into the room. If possible, switch cleaning products to see if the behaviour persists. Always look for cat-friendly cleaning products, your veterinarian should be able to recommend a floor cleaner safe to use around cats.
Despite what the Internet tells you, cats cannot taste sweet because they lack the necessary taste receptors, but there may be other flavours or scents in cleaning products that attract the cat.
Traces of food or drinks on the floor
The cat’s sense of smell is considerably better than ours. Add the fact that a cat’s nose is much closer to the ground, which means a cat may detect something that smells good on the floor that we are oblivious to. This may be the traces of food or liquid that has accidentally been spilled in the kitchen or around children’s high chairs. Even if we have cleaned it up, the cat may still be able to detect residue odours that we cannot.
A cat may lick the floor if he or she is thirsty and has no access to water, or because there is a small amount of liquid or condensation on the ground. Some cats will also lick sinks, plant pot trays or dishwashers even if they have water available. I have one cat who licks the water off the leaves of a plant. This may be because the water doesn’t have a strong chlorine taste or they don’t like their water bowl (dirty water, location, type of bowl).
Always ensure that the cat has a constant supply of clean, fresh drinking water. Sometimes cats may show a preference for the type of bowl they drink from. If your cat is drinking from other sources, consider adding a different shape of water bowl, such as one that is more shallow, wider, or even a water fountain. Wash the water bowl regularly to remove the build-up of biofilms and odours.
Anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder
Anxiety can present in many ways including obsessive-compulsive behaviours (overgrooming, tail sucking, pica, obsessive licking). OCD is characterised by behaviours that are repetitive in nature beyond what is normal. For example, all cats groom, but some can groom beyond what is normal or necessary. Obsessive-compulsive floor licking is an uncommon manifestation of anxiety in cats.
Cats explore their world using all of their senses including touching objects with their paws and licking. Doing so provides information on the taste and composition of the surface (smooth, rough, cool, warm).
More and more cats are indoors now, which is great as it keeps them safe and protects the wildlife, but we must accommodate this indoor lifestyle by providing the cat with an outlet for them to burn some energy and stimulate their mind. Provide cat trees and perches to climb and a selection of cat toys including wands, toy mice, food puzzles to keep them entertained.
Cognitive dysfunction syndrome
As cats age, they can experience a decline in cognition similar to dementia in humans. The cause of CDS still isn’t known. In humans, it is believed to be caused by plaques forming on the brain or reduced or blocked blood flow to the brain due to damaged blood vessels and chronic free radical damage. One study found that close to 30% of cats between 11 and 14 show signs of CDS, this figure jumps up to 50% in cats over 15 years of age and up to 80% in cats aged 16 and over.
Cats may inadvertently lick the floor during grooming? Our cattle dog often leaves wet patches on the leather sofa when he’s been licking his legs and feet. Hard to reach areas of the body such as the tail may also lead to accidental floor licking.
Find a pattern
- Does the cat lick the floor at the same time of day?
- Is there an event that happens before or after the floor licking? Recently mopped floor, before the cat has been fed, a stressful event, grooming?
- What other behaviours does the cat exhibit before, during or after?
- When did the floor licking start, is it a new behaviour or has the cat always licked floors?
- Does the cat lick any other objects or surfaces?
- How long does the cat lick the floor?
- Does the cat display other repetitive behaviours in addition to floor licking?
- Has the cat been treated for internal and external parasites?
What to do
If floor licking only happens occasionally, then there is little to worry about, however, if the cat is licking the floor regularly seek veterinary advice. If the behaviour is new and/or the cat is licking the floor beyond normal curiosity, speak to your veterinarian. Taking a video recording of the cat engaging in licking the floor can be of benefit, along with being able to answer the questions outlined above.
The veterinarian will perform a complete physical and neurological examination of the cat and obtain a medical history from you.
Baseline tests: Complete blood count and biochemical profile to evaluate kidney and liver function and evaluate the overall health of the cat as well.
Additional diagnostics will depend on the physical and neurological findings as well as baseline test results.
Once a medical cause has been ruled out, and the veterinarian has determined the licking is beyond ‘normal’ (ie; briefly licking some spilled food, or accidental floor licking during grooming), a diagnosis of compulsive behaviour or stress and anxiety can be made.
Veterinarians manage compulsive behaviour in three ways; modification, medications and environment.
The goal of behaviour modification is to correct a behaviour by redirecting to a more suitable target and rewarding the cat when he or she complies.
Do not use punishment, not only is this ineffective, but it can increase stress and anxiety.
Resolving conflict between other animals in the home can take time and patience. Provide each animal with key resources (litter trays, perches, food and water bowls), and where necessary, separate animals with issues for a period of time before re-introducing. Boxes, paper bags (with some dried catnip inside), scrunched up paper are all cheap toys that can provide hours of entertainment for most cats.
Schedule 10-15 minutes once or twice per day for play therapy, which allows the cat to engage in his natural predatory behaviour. Wand toys are the best for this kind of play.
Anti-anxiety medications can be effective in treating compulsive and stress disorders in cats. There are a number of drugs available including:
- Clomipramine (Clomicalm/Anafranil): A tricyclic antidepressant (TCA) that is thought to increase the activity of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which contributes to mood regulation and feelings of well-being and happiness.
- Amitriptyline (Elavil, Amitrol, Endep, Levate, Laroxyl and Saroten): A tricyclic antidepressant that is thought to block the amine pump, thereby increasing neurotransmitter levels (especially serotonin and norepinephrine). Seratonin is responsible for feelings of well being and happiness. The same blockage of the amine pumps also leads to increased levels of norepinephrine which is an important neurotransmitter in the sympathetic nervous system.
- Fluoxetine (Prozac, Reconcile, Sarafem): A selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) 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.
Most cases of licking are completely normal and harmless. Pet owners should seek the advice of a veterinarian if floor licking is excessive. Keep a diary of frequency, duration and what happened before and after the licking to determine if there is a pattern or a trigger.