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We’ve gotten a couple of questions recently about how to manage cats that nurse on everything in sight, so this week’s post is about cats that suck!

First, Candace asks: My 4-month-old calico has been sucking the sheepskin in the window. She is the seventh cat in my lifetime and none have ever done this before. Her poop this evening had sheepskin in it and looked a little greenish. Her appetite is fine. Actually, she chews everything: I have to take away plastic bags and I just rolled up the sheepskin. Should I worry?

Then, John says: We are going crazy with this male kitten “teenager” — he’s 4 months old and tries to nurse constantly. Anyone who holds him is going to be nursed, mostly on their clothing. We think he may be deprived of milk, so we are thinking of buying little baby bottles to let him drink from them. He is putting so much effort into trying to get milk from our clothes, we feel sorry for him. We give him milk in his dish, which he likes. It is driving us crazy! Help!!!

A mother cat nurses four kittens.

Cat nursing four kittens. Photo (CC-BY-SA) by Julian Ortega

Siouxsie: You both will be relieved — sort of — to know that nursing and fabric-sucking is not all that unusual in cats.

Thomas: This kind of nursing behavior is generally caused by being weaned too early or abruptly, or by a stressor that provokes self-comforting behavior. This stressor can be changes in his life or it can be boredom or separation anxiety.

Siouxsie: Some vets say that wool sucking behaviors may be rooted in nutritional problems. They recommend high-fiber food in order to help calm the behavior.

Thomas: But we believe that for the vast majority of cats, nursing and wool sucking is a psychological issue.

Siouxsie: Nursing is about the most comforting thing a young cat knows, because the feeling evokes some of the calm, safe and happy feelings he had while being fed by his mother.

Thomas: Sometimes if you catch the behavior early, you can resort to distraction techniques, but as both Candace and John know, distraction is not a solution once the behavior is firmly entrenched.

Siouxsie: Wool sucking can progress to pica — or eating non-nutritious things. Candace, since you found sheepskin in your cat’s poo and she’s also eating plastic, your kitty is starting to exhibit signs of pica.

Thomas: Eating fabric or wool fibers can cause intestinal blockages, which can be extremely dangerous to kitties, so it’s very important to get your cat out of the wool-sucking habit.

Siouxsie: John, we don’t think your kitty is nursing on you because he’s short on milk. Like we said, this is more likely to be a comforting behavior than a nutritional issue.

Thomas: Also, cats really shouldn’t drink cow milk. Cow milk has a different composition than cat milk, and it has a lot more lactose. Since many cats are lactose-intolerant, excessive consumption of cow milk can lead to diarrhea and other unpleasant symptoms. If you really feel the need to give your cat milk, we recommend you get kitten milk replacer instead. You can find this at pet stores.

Siouxsie: Both of you should take your kitties to the vet for a checkup. You want to be sure to rule out any health-related reasons for your cats’ behavior before you start dealing with the problem as a psychological one.

Thomas: Because this suckling is actually much like obsessive behaviors in people, your vet may prescribe a course of anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications for your cat.

Siouxsie: The idea behind using these medications for a while is to put a damper on the emotional reaction that produces the desire to suckle on people, blankets, or anything else.

Thomas: If your vet chooses an SSRI medication like fluoxetine (Prozac) or Zoloft, the behavior changes can take a few weeks to fully take effect. The anti-anxiety medication buspirone is also used to treat issues like this.

Siouxsie: You may also want to get some Feliway diffusers. Feliway is a synthetic “happy cat” pheromone that is very effective at stopping urine spraying and similar territorial-anxiety marking behavior. It’s also helpful during stressful events like moves, and it can help to lower your cat’s general anxiety level. This product has received mixed reviews, but we’ve used it successfully here at Paws and Effect HQ. Our vet and the animal shelter where Mama volunteers also use Feliway diffusers. You can get Feliway diffusers at pet stores or online.

Catsifier pillow

The Catsifier is a pillow with four little cat-size teats.

Thomas: There’s a really interesting product on the market that’s designed to help cats that nurse as a comforting behavior. The Catsifier is designed to feel like a mama cat’s belly and it has four little plastic teats the size of a mother cat’s nipples, which the cat can suck on to his heart’s content.

Siouxsie: We can’t tell you how well it works because we’ve never used it ourselves. But it might be worth looking into — especially for you, John, since you’d like your kitty to stop nursing everything in sight.

Thomas: Apparently they’re having trouble producing enough Catsifiers to meet the demand, but we still recommend that you check it out. The website says that the design in the photo on the right is still available.

Siouxsie: Another trick that might help you, Candace, is to provide your kitty with a “safer” substitute for sucking, maybe a terrycloth towel or something that won’t come apart as easily as a sheepskin.

Thomas: Whatever the cause and whatever the solution, your cats are going to need you to be patient and keep on trying. After all, you wouldn’t kick a mentally ill child, sibling or friend to the curb, would you?

Siouxsie: Even if you get your cats on medication, the change is not going to be instant.

Thomas: Good luck, Candace and John. Please let us know how things work out with your nursing-fanatic kitties.