A fairly common complaint from many cat parents of adopted kittens is that their feline displays nursing behavior on pretty much anything—blanket corners, clothing, even an arm or finger. It’s uncomfortable at times and can actually ruin clothing. But most importantly: why do they do it and how do you stop it?
Nicole Rebin and her family run Paws On Your Heart, a non-profit sanctuary for feral and stray cats with special needs, part of the larger Hillview Acres Animal & Nature Preserve. The sanctuary is located on a spacious property owned by her family in beautiful rural Saskatchewan, Canada. For decades they have been providing food, shelter and love to homeless cats as well as promoting cat welfare worldwide. Being cat behavior experts, we asked Nicole your questions about why your kitten nurses and how to stop it.
Why do some kittens “nurse” on objects?
NR: Both kittens and older cats will “nurse” on objects. This is commonly called suckling or wool suckling if specifically involving fabrics (Siamese cats are notorious for this). In concert with the suckling behaviour, cats will often purr, and knead as if they are still nursing.
There are three main theories regarding the suckling behavior:
- The most common and widespread belief is that the kitten (who may now be an older cat) was weaned too early from its mother. There are slight differences of opinion regarding the exact best weaning age, but, all groups agree that ideally weaning should take place between 6-12 weeks of age. For all kittens, suckling the mother cat provides comfort and reassurance. If the kitten is orphaned or intentionally weaned too early that comfort chain is broken and the kitten searches to replace it – often for life.
- A second theory looks for medical reasons underlying the suckling behavior. This is particularly true in older cats. Specific health issues linked to suckling include hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism or teeth and gum issues
- The third theory of suckling behavior involves emotional issues. Many kittens and cats will suckle when stressed, anxious, nervous, lonely, or bored.
Do you see this often in kittens you rescue? Older cats?
NR: It is very common in the rescue world to see suckling behavior. All rescued cats have been saved from some kind of despair and deprivation, whether physical, emotional or social. So, it’s not surprising that they turn to suckling for support and reassurance.
At Paws On Your Heart we’ve rescued many street kittens who lost or were separated from their mothers. Sadly, this results in very early weaning. Interestingly, not every kitten weaned early goes on to suckle. But, many do. Lots of kittens will end up suckling their siblings, and other older cats, especially other mothers. We’ve even seen kittens suckling themselves…paws, tails and so on. Often we’re lucky enough to rescue the mother with the kittens. In many cases we’ll see an unusual phenomenon where several of the kittens will stop suckling mom, but, one or two try to continue well past the normal time.
Additionally, there are rescue cats of all ages who will suckle your hair, arm, neck, or shirt. Some prefer blankets and pillows or teddies.
Is there any way to prevent a kitten that was taken away from his mother early from developing this habit?
NR: The best thing that you can do is offer a loving and nurturing environment for the kitten. If a kitten feels safe, cared for, and happy it will less likely seek out suckling opportunities. Make sure that the environment is comforting and non-stressful. Provide lots of opportunities for play and stimulation. And, most importantly, spend lots of quality time with your kitten.
Do you have any tricks/tips to help an owner curb this habit in their kitten?
NR: For most kittens and cats suckling is not something that needs to be curbed. In fact, suckling can play a very important role in calming and comforting your cat during challenging times…think of the Peanuts character Linus with his blanket.
However, there are 4 situations in which you might want to curb the suckling:
- The behavior is becoming compulsive. This means that the kitten is suckling most of the time and you can’t encourage it to stop even with distractions.
- The kitten is suckling to the point of hurting himself, another kitten or another cat.
- You are bothered or harmed by the kitten suckling on your arm, face, leg etc.
- The kitten is suckling on dangerous objects. Common worries include fabrics that might be ingested or teddy bears with parts that can be swallowed.
If any of these circumstances encourage you to curb the suckling here are some tips to help:
Create as enriching and stimulating an environment as possible: Many kittens and cats get bored easily, especially if they don’t have you around during the day. Make sure that you have cat trees or toys or boxes to keep kitty entertained. But, remember that your kitten doesn’t want to always play alone – join in and you’ll both feel better.
Determine the cause of any stress or anxiety and eliminate it: So often we forget that our kitten reacts to stressors just like we do – they become anxious and look for comfort. Examine your kitten’s environment for possible stressors, and do what you can to minimize them. If they can’t be eliminated, then find a safe place for your kitten to disappear for some quiet time. Common examples of stressors include: home renovating, a change in who’s in the household (e.g. new baby, new marriage, divorce etc.), another pet passing away or joining the family, loud noises from children or neighbors or a home work project.
Bring in reinforcements: Having more than one kitten or cat brings an immediate playmate into the equation. If it’s safe and controlled, another kind of pet can work, too. When kitty is playing and distracted she isn’t likely to need the suckling.
Remove the object of the suckling: sometimes just removing the blanket or toy will end the suckling, but, beware that this could cause too much trauma, so you may need to do it slowly over time. Sometimes you’re the one being suckled, so you will need to get up and remove yourself from the situation. If you choose this route, you’ll need to be firm and consistent or the kitten will receive mixed messages. It’s very helpful to offer a treat or petting or play a game to positively reinforce the new direction.
Substitute an acceptable object to suckle: Often the problem only lies in the chosen suckling object…it’s either dangerous or is getting destroyed. In that case, choose another safe and non-toxic item – like a teddy bear with non-removable pieces or a catnip toy. If the kitten has been suckling you then rubbing your scent on the new item can encourage her to transition over quicker.
An unusual suggestion by some vets is to include more fiber in your kitty’s diet: I would recommend checking with your veterinarian to find out the best balance for your specific kitten or cat.
Keep It Positive
As Nicole mentions above, many times suckling is a result stress or anxiety. This means if you try to stop it by using aversive methods – a spray of water for example – you could make the behavior worse.
“As in all behavioral challenges with your kitten or cat, always use a positive approach,” Nicole adds. “Never resort to hitting, yelling or threatening. Both your cat and you will benefit from a gentler, softer, encouraging style. Always remember that your overall goal is to have a happy and healthy home for both of you.”
Remember, this kitten has already been through a lot before you got him, he may just need some time to adjust and realize he is not going to come to any harm in your home. If you are having a lot of problems, contact a cat behaviorist in your area.
About the Author
Based in Wilsonville, Ore., animal lover Kristina N. Lotz is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) and a member of the Dog Writers Association of America. She is the founder of A Fairytail House. In her spare time, she trains and competes in a variety of performance events with her Shetland Sheepdogs and caters to her two rescue kitties. She smartly married a Veterinary Technician, who helps keep the fur kids happy and healthy, and provides a quick resource for articles.