Understanding the Behavior of Cats Licking Their Lips

Author: K. Marie Altoby K Marie Alto Updated 8 min read

Understanding the Behavior of Cats Licking Their Lips

Cartoon characters comically lick their lips when they're hungry and see something delicious in front of them, but in real life, that's a less common behavior than you might expect. Cats, though, often lick their lips and may do so for more reasons than just because they see something tasty. What are those reasons? Why do cats put those little pink tongues to work? Let's talk about another aspect of cat behavior.

Cleaning Their Mouths

When you have a bit of food stuck on your lips, a drip of sauce, or a bit of powder from chips or something, you lick your lips to clean them off, right? Well, most people do, though some take a napkin and put it to work. Cats don't use napkins, though, so they resort to their tongues for cleaning their furry little faces. When they eat and have residue on their faces, or when they drink and there's still water on the fur around their mouth, that adorable little tongue dips out and helps clean them off.

Really, it's all just a part of their standard grooming routine. Cats use their tongues to groom themselves from tip to tail, and licking their lips is just that tip put into action.

A Cat Cleaning Their Mouth Image by Toe Beans

Cats are actually pretty fastidious about cleaning themselves after a meal. That's because, despite being small predators, they're still small, and other, larger predators might stalk them down if they still smell like food. Even if your fur baby lives a happy and comfortable life indoors, their instincts tell them to clean themselves up so the lingering scent doesn't give them away.

Dental Issues

Other than grooming, the second most common reason cats lick their lips is because they have some kind of dental issue. Keep an eye out for frequent or excessive lip licking and associated drooling, especially if either one is unusual for your fur baby. These can indicate a tooth cavity, an abscess, a broken tooth, or another kind of oral infection or sore. Anything that causes irritation and pain will make them lick at their lips and face in an attempt to try to soothe the irritation away.

Other symptoms can include:

  • A decline in appetite. When it hurts to open their mouth or to put pressure on a tooth or part of their gums, they aren't going to want to do anything that makes them do so, including eating. Pain can also suppress appetite.
  • Paying at their face. When licking doesn't help, there aren't many other ways your cat can interact with their own face, and pawing at it is one such way. In some cases, they may even attempt to use a claw to pick at their mouth, but that's not terribly common.
  • A bad odor from their face. Cats don't exactly have fresh, minty breath, but when they have a worse odor than usual – something foul and wrong-smelling – it's possible that it's an infection you're smelling. Since cats love to stick their paws and faces in your face, you're probably at least somewhat used to the smell of their normal breath, so you should be able to notice if something is unusual.

The four most common dental issues in cats are gingivitis, periodontitis, oral tumors, and a condition called tooth resorption. Gingivitis is gum disease, and periodontitis is a more advanced version of gum disease that occurs if gingivitis is left unchecked. Oral tumors can be anything from cysts to cancer and can be anywhere from harmless to extremely dangerous. Tooth resorption is a rare and unusual problem where the cat's body, for some reason, decides that the tooth is a foreign body and rejects it.

A Cat With Dental Issues Image by Toe Beans

Dental issues are important to get checked out. Infections need to be treated right away, and in the case of an infected or broken tooth, it probably needs to be pulled to prevent more pain and to help encourage your fur baby to eat. Don't let the issue linger and hope it'll resolve itself.

You can help forestall dental issues by training your cat to accept you brushing their teeth, and dry food can help scrape teeth clean, but there's no substitute for regular dental checkups as well.

Dry Mouth

We tend to think of dry mouth as a symptom of something else, usually the side effect of some kind of medication. In cats, that's still true, but it can also be caused by certain diseases or illnesses, like kidney or liver problems, dehydration, or even endocrine disorders.

A Cat With Dry Mouth Image by Toe Beans

Dry mouth is also potentially alleviated by working the mouth to get the salivary glands to function a bit, which is why your cat might lick their lips in an attempt to alleviate it. Excessive lip licking but with a dry tongue and mouth can be a sign of one of these issues, and while it's not as immediately serious as most of the other things on this list, you might still want to consider calling your vet, especially if it doesn't lighten up in a day or two.

Eating Something Bad

If your cat ate something they shouldn't have, it's possible that it has done something to their mouth that they don't like, and they're licking to try to get rid of the feeling. Eating something mildly toxic, for example, can lead to tingling or numb lips. They might also be excessively salivating and licking to try to keep it cleaned up because it's otherwise unpleasant on their face. The same thing can happen if they do something like, for example, try to catch a stinging or biting insect and have it bite or sting them on the lips or even inside their mouth.

A Cat Eating a Bad Plant Image by Toe Beans

There are a lot of different things in the world around us that can cause this kind of issue. Toxic plants are everywhere, including many common houseplants. Bees and wasps can get inside at any time. Even household chemicals can cause problems.

Mild symptoms may resolve on their own, but you still may want to call a vet to make sure. If your cat is having other symptoms, like vomiting, breathing problems, diarrhea, or a severe lack of drinking or eating, definitely take them in ASAP to get checked out. Some toxic plants and substances can be deadly in a very short amount of time.

Nausea

Somewhat related to toxicity, nausea can cause your cat to salivate excessively or just lick their lips in an attempt to forestall the feeling. Cats aren't exactly known for trying notto throw up, but if they're just feeling bad, the physiological reactions are going to happen one way or the other.

Nausea is also usually accompanied by other symptoms, like drooling, chewing, dehydration, and dry heaving. And, of course, vomiting, which may or may not solve the issue depending on what it is that's causing the problem. If they can purge it from their system with a quick vomit, that's great for them; otherwise, they might be sick, and the cause will keep them suffering until it runs its course or is treated.

A Nauseous Cat Image by Toe Beans

If your fur baby is constantly nauseous and vomiting, dehydration can be a serious worry. On top of that, it can be a sign of something like kidney failure or diabetes going unchecked. All of these need a vet to address them with, at minimum, fluids to help keep them going. Again, don't hesitate to call your vet or bring your fur baby in for a look.

Allergic Reactions

Toxicity is one thing, but there are other reasons why the mouth (and nose, and eyes, and airways) can be irritated: allergies. Whether it's an allergy to a cleaning product, an allergy to a food ingredient, or an allergy to some kind of seasonal dust or pollen, cats can have allergies just the same as we can. But, where we can just pop an antihistamine to take care of it for the day, your fur baby can't do anything until you notice.

A Cat With Allergies Image by Toe Beans

Allergic reactions can cause itchy eyes, nose, and mouth, which are the main symptoms likely to cause them to lick their lips. If their allergies are more respiratory, they might have labored breathing, wheezing, or sneezing. Watery eyes are also common. On the other hand, if it's a topical allergy, it's more likely to be something they stuck their face in that is irritating the skin of their lips and nose.

If you suspect allergies, call your vet, and they can help you determine if it's something they need to help treat or if you can just work on eliminating the cause from your home or from their food.

Fear and Anxiety

One of the less physical reasons for lip smacking and licking is anxiety and fear. Licking their lips is what is known as a "displacement behavior" that occurs when your cat is forcibly put in a situation they don't like and can't really escape. It's common in veterinary offices, in fact, when a cat that doesn't like the vet is brought to the exam table, some try to fight, some try to flee, and others exhibit a displacement behavior.

An Anxious Cat Image by Toe Beans

Lip licking is a sort of grooming behavior that can be used to alleviate fear and anxiety, but without taking their eyes off whatever is making them anxious or afraid. You might see it if two cats are in the middle of a stare-down, or if your cat is confronting an unknown animal, or a change in scenery, or an unknown person, or themselves in a mirror. Anything causing them a spike of stress might be alleviated with a little licking of the lips.

Compulsive Disorders

Another reason why your cat might lick their lips constantly is if they have a kind of obsessive/compulsive disorder. Some cats have what is basically an OCD-style tic that makes them constantly groom themselves. Left to their own devices, they might end up licking and picking at their skin until they've pulled out all of their hair, leaving bald spots known as Behavioral Alopecia.

These can be primary – that is, a kind of neurological issue that doesn't have an external cause – or secondary, such as if they have a kind of dermatitis that irritates them into excessively grooming an area. Some parasites and problems like ringworm can also cause it.

A Cat With a Compulsive Disorder Image by Toe Beans

How can you tell if lip licking is part of this? Well, these kinds of compulsive disorders generally aren't limited to lip licking and extend to excessive grooming of all kinds. So, if they're constantly grooming themselves well beyond what they normally should, it's a sign that they may have something more going on.

Other Causes for Excessive Lip Licking in Cats

There are, of course, a whole lot of other reasons why your cat might be licking their lips more than usual. For example, maybe they have something caught in their teeth, and it's part of the work they're doing to dislodge it. Or maybe they injured their lip or nose somewhere, with a small cut or scrape, and licking helps soothe it while it heals. These kinds of issues aren't usually dangerous outside of extreme cases, but they're still relevant.

Fortunately, you can usually tell if your fur baby is suffering from something more dangerous because they'll have other symptoms. Vomiting, trouble breathing, and lack of appetite are the kinds of things you need to watch for in general, and they are usually the same sorts of responses to anything going wrong. At a minimum, call your vet and discuss the issue; in extreme cases, take them to the emergency vet to make sure they're seen as soon as possible.

Excessive Lip Licking in Cats Image by Toe Beans

On the other hand, if they're licking their lips a lot but are otherwise acting just fine, you probably don't need to worry. It's really only when things get out of hand and there are other symptoms in play that you need to worry about it. Otherwise, it might just be a good opportunity to get a few of those adorable mlems on camera to share on your favorite social networks.

So there you have it; all of the main reasons why your cat might be licking their lips a lot more than normal. If you have any questions – about cat behavior in general, even – feel free to ask in the comments below!

K Marie Alto
K Marie Alto

K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 50K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-). Read more

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