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Why do cats suck wool? How can I stop my cat from wool sucking?

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Jaspurr Suckling his Foreleg

Jaspurr Suckling his Foreleg

Photo Credit: © Lance Syufy
Question: Why do cats suck wool? How can I stop my cat from wool sucking?
I've had my cat since she was six weeks old. When I first got her, she wanted to "nurse" on my fingers or my earlobe. She would knead my face while sucking on my ear, and her sharp little claws were very uncomfortable. When I discouraged her from this activity, she eventually switched to sucking on the corner of a small blanket I used to line her bed, kneading all the while. She is three years old now, and I think it's time she outgrows this behavior. What can I do to help her act more like an adult cat and stop sucking wool? She's starting to ruin good sweaters and blankets with this undesirable behavior.
Answer:

Perhaps without realizing it, you've hit on the exact reason for your cat's wool-sucking habit, which is a form of OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) in cats. Wool sucking is not just a habit; it is an emotional need, borne when she was taken away from the mother cat at such a young age. Although wool sucking can sometimes be caused by pica (eating foreign substances to satisfy a dietary deficiency), that is very rare. However, since it is always safer to eliminate medical reasons for behavioral problems, a veterinary exam is indicated.

#1 Cause of Wool Sucking: Early Removal from Mother Cat

Kittens should be kept with the mother cat at the very least until the age of eight weeks, and ideally, until they are 12 weeks old. They will normally outgrow their need to suckle when they are introduced to kitten food, although many of them will continue to try to suckle the mother cat for a few weeks longer. They also learn important socializing skills during this 12-week period, which will eventually help them interact positively with other cats and humans.

When you adopted this six-week-old kitten, you became her surrogate mother. Kneading while suckling your ear was a natural step in her development, since her mother's nipple was no longer available. Wool or other soft fabric became a second choice because of its soft warmth, also reminiscent of the mother cat. Some cats may try to suckle other cats, or even their own fur. You can compare this to a human child who sucks her thumb. My Jaspurr is an example of the latter. He has sucked his own left foreleg for years. Since the skin and coat are healthy, we do not try to discourage it, because it gives him comfort.

Other Contributing Factors to Wool Sucking in Cats

Although early removal from the mother cat may be the main cause in wool-sucking, other conditions might also play a role, either in the overall behavior issue or when wool-sucking periodically comes and goes:
  • Genetics (Breed)
    Oriental breeds, such has the Siamese, have been pinpointed as more likely to suck wool and other soft fabrics. It is unknown at this point how actual genetics are involved, except for the fact that Siamese, as a rule, require more time before weaning than other breeds of cats.
  • Stress
    Just as thumb-sucking children may grow up to be nail-biters only during times of stress, cats who seem to have given up their wool-sucking needs may revert during stressful periods. If this happens with your cat, examine the kinds of changes that might have triggered the wool-sucking:
    • Environmental Changes
      These might include a new baby, a new pet, moving to a new home, or even rearranging the furniture.
    • Sudden Aggression by another Family Cat
      Redirected aggression is often the culprit here.
    • Death of a Family Member
      Death of any close friend, whether it be human, feline, or otherwise, can be very stressful to cats, who may retreat to the most comforting habit they remember from kittenhood.

Ways to Discourage Cats from Sucking Wool

If your cat has never ingested any material he has suckled on, you may just wish to tolerate it, and let him have that bit of comfort. That was our decision with Jaspurr; we considered his suckling of his foreleg an endearing habit, almost always practiced near a human companion. However, ingestion of fabric or other material can cause dangerous abdominal blockage, which sometimes requires surgery to remove. Try some of these methods alternately, or in combination, to help him:
  • Remove the Temptation
    First, remove all throws, blankets, and clothing which are his normal sucking targets, and lock them up for the duration. Out of sight, out of mind. Next:
  • Offer a Substitute
    A soft terrycloth toy might provide a safe target of his attention. One innovative product is the Catsifier, which is an attractive pillow on one side, with four lifelike "nipples" attached to the other side - a cat "pacifier," if you will. I tested this product on Jaspurr; he ignored it, but your experience may vary.
  • Distract His Attention
    You can try tapping your cat lightly on the nose, then give him a treat as reward when he stops sucking wool. Likewise, putting him on the floor and engaging in an interactive game, such as "hide and seek," or wand play, will take his attention away.
  • Stress-Related Wool Sucking May Indicate Medication
    Try to remove or correct the source of the stress, first. If your cat still seems to need suckling, try a natural anti-stress remedy, such as flower essences, or a homeopathic remedy. If this fails to work, consult your veterinarian to see if an anti-anxiety or antidepressant drug might be indicated.

Loads of love, patience, and creative trial and error may be required to help your cat either desist or cut back on his wool sucking. As mentioned above, if it is harmless, you may just need to put his emotional comfort first, and learn to accept it.
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