Cats are known for retreating to lick their wounds after they get injured. But do cats heal their own wounds by licking them, or is this a behavior you should stop?
Is it bad for cats to lick their wounds? Licking can be beneficial to small wounds, but is bad for big wounds. Licking and gentle biting clears debris away from the wound like dirt and blood. There’s also limited evidence that saliva contains beneficial hormones that assist wounds in healing. However, cats’ mouths contain bacteria, so your cat could infect its wound by licking it. It could also keep licking until a lick granuloma forms, a large patch of callused, bald skin. To stop your cat from licking its wounds, fit it with an E-collar, a soft collar or a neck brace, or spray the area with a cat-safe lick deterrent spray.
The guide below first looks at when and why cats lick their wounds. It will then cover exactly why wound-licking is a behavior you should stop, and how you can go about stopping it.
When Do Cats Lick Their Wounds?
Wound licking is an in-built instinctive behavior in cats. They do it any time they have a wound. So, for example:
- After a fight. When your cat is scratched or bitten by another cat, or when it’s in a fight with a bigger animal like a dog, it will lick its wounds afterwards. That’s where the phrase ‘licking your wounds’ comes from.
- Post-operative licking. If your cat goes through surgery and wakes up with a wound, it will try to clean it, even if it was already cleaned by the vet. That’s why you will notice your cat licking wound after neuter (or cat licking wound after spay).
- During the course of normal grooming. Wound-licking implies that the cat licks its wounds more frequently than it licks anything else during grooming. But your cat may also give a wound a once-over during its normal grooming routine.
If you have an indoor cat who hardly ever gets hurt, then you may never see this behavior. But if you have an outdoor cat, you’re much more likely to observe wound-licking behavior.
Why Do Cats Lick Their Wounds?
With what we know about science, we know that licking a wound isn’t the best way to treat it.
But we have access to doctors, hospitals and advanced modern medicine. Cats, or at least the wild cats that housecats descended from, don’t. They have to deal with wounds in the only way they know how; and licking actually isn’t the worst thing they could do. Believe it or not, wound-licking has some benefits, even if it isn’t as effective as a vet’s care.
Does Cat Saliva Contain Antiseptic?
There currently aren’t any studies that describe cat saliva as antiseptic.
This idea has a long history, and there’s a good reason why it has taken hold. Dogs have saliva that is antiseptic towards certain bacteria, although not others. And mice have been shown to have NGF (nerve growth factor) in their saliva, which assists in wound healing. There are, though, no studies that suggest cats have either NGF or antiseptic qualities in their saliva.
That doesn’t mean that there’s no reason for cats to lick their wounds, though.
Licking Helps Clean Wounds
There are many different aspects to wound management. Say, for example, that you sustain a big and messy cut. The area around the cut is covered in mud and blood. If you were to put antiseptic on the wound, that would be preferable to not doing so, but the wound will nevertheless not heal correctly because the area hasn’t been cleaned. The mud and various other bits of dust, dirt and grime will still be present. They will prevent the wound from healing correctly.
So whether or not cat saliva contains antiseptic, it’s still beneficial for the cat to clean its wound. If a cat is in a cat fight, for example, then small pieces of claw or tooth could be stuck in its wound. If it scratched itself on a branch, then small pieces of leaf, soil or something similar could be in there instead. The act of licking is gentle enough not to cause the cat too much pain, but will help the cat remove any debris from the wound. Even a small amount of gentle biting may be necessary to remove anything stubborn stuck in there.
Why Is My Cat Biting Its Wounds?
Gentle biting is a part of your cat’s normal grooming routine, and can be seen during the wound licking process too. There are several points to biting rather than just licking:
- Biting gets the fur wet. This helps clean particularly dirty areas e.g. those covered in blood around a wound.
- Biting helps clear tangled and matted fur. This can appear if your cat hasn’t been grooming much lately, as can happen after an injury.
- Biting pulls out old, dead hairs. A core point of grooming is to get rid of loose hairs in the coat. Both licking and biting parts of the coat achieve that.
Your cat may therefore nibble at the areas around a wound. If there is lots of blood, especially dried blood, then this will further assist your cat in cleaning the wound as described above.
Should I Let My Cat Lick Its Wounds?
A small amount of licking and biting at fur is useful for the reasons described above. But some cats seem to go into overdrive, and keep licking, licking and licking. There are also health concerns which mean that licking, especially overlicking, is bad for a wound. This applies no matter the wound, but more so when the wound is big, open or deep:
- Is it OK for my cat to lick himself after a fight? This is probably alright. A cat scratch or bite isn’t typically that deep, especially one from a play fight.
- Is it OK for my cat to lick his abscess? Abscesses are large open wounds. You shouldn’t allow your cat to lick these as abscesses are typically infected already, and adding further bacteria will stop the wound from healing quickly.
- Is it OK for my cat to lick a surgical scar? A scar from surgery recently performed could get infected, but an old one, i.e. one that’s closed, won’t.
Let’s take a deeper look at all the problems that wound licking can cause.
Do Cats’ Mouths Contain Bacteria?
It’s common knowledge that cats’ mouths contain lots of bacteria. This isn’t something that’s unique to cats, because all animals’ mouths do. Even ours do, despite our best efforts to brush our teeth, floss and use mouthwash.
The problem is that the mouth is the perfect place for bacteria to live. It’s warm, which bacteria love; there’s lots of water in the form of saliva, which bacteria need to reproduce; and there’s regular access to food, of course! This means that even if you brush your cat’s teeth or take other steps to protect its dental health, its mouth will at all times contain lots of bacteria. This is important because your cat can then introduce bacteria to its wound by licking it.
This is something that is backed up by scientific study. According to a paper in Veterinary Research, regular cats’ mouths contain dozens of kinds of bacteria, particularly in the Staphyloccocus, Pseudomonas and Acinetobacter families. Staphylococcus commonly causes wound infection in people, because it lives on our skin; it stands to reason, then, that it can infect a cat’s wound too.
Infection will stop the wound from healing quickly, and left untreated, could cause deadly sepsis. When infection occurs, the area around the wound turns red and swells up. This is a result of the body sending more blood there, so that more antibodies—bacteria-busting cells—can go there. If the infection is small, the cat can fight it off, although it increases the risk of scarring and the length of time the wound takes to close. But if it’s serious, then the infection can get into the bloodstream, which is what sepsis is. Sepsis can kill a cat because the bacteria then travel to the organs like the liver and shut them down.
This is highly unlikely to happen if your cat has a tiny scratch. But it is possible.
Licking vs. Medical Treatment
Letting your cat lick its wound may be natural, but that doesn’t mean it’s better than veterinary treatment. Your vet will clean and heal wounds better than your cat can by licking it.
One key difference is that a vet can fix up a wound in a sterile way, meaning they won’t introduce any bacteria to the wound. As we’ve learned, cats’ tongues are covered in bacteria, so make a poor tool for cleaning a wound. You could compare your cat’s tongue to a surgeon’s scalpel, if that scalpel had been dropped down the toilet. And the more your cat licks its wound—and some cats don’t want to stop—then the higher the chance of infection occurring.
The bigger the wound, the more of an advantage that the vet has over your cat’s ‘natural remedy’. A big wound will heal slowly, giving your cat more time to infect it with its tongue. They can also require stitches, and are more likely to be infected whether or not your cat licks them.
What Is a Lick Granuloma?
A lick granuloma is a kind of dermatitis seen in cats. It occurs when a cat won’t stop licking a certain part of its body, often the lower part of one of its legs. Lick granulomas appear red and irritated, and can develop bleeding. Over time, the area becomes thickly callused and bald.
Lick granulomas are often caused by psychological issues like stress. The cat will feel as if it can’t stop licking because it’s stressed out. But it’s also possible for them to form because a cat won’t stop licking its wounds after they’ve healed.
My Cat Licked MY Wound…
Cats are smart. They know that if you get hurt, you have a wound just like they might have.
In some cases, cats that are particularly close to their owners will lick these wounds. This is a natural behavior that cats display in the wild: mothers lick their kittens to groom them, for example, and feral cats that form colonies will typically have one member that grooms each and every other cat. In the event that a kitten or another cat in the colony has a wound, a cat might lick it, just as they lick their own wounds.
Unfortunately, a cat can introduce bacteria into one of your wounds, just as it might introduce bacteria into its own. People frequently pass away from this issue, and the related issues of infected cat bites and scratches. Examples have been reported in the news, like this one in the UK’s Daily Mail:
A grandmother has died after her cat licked scratches on her arm, causing her to fall into a coma. The 80-year-old Melbourne woman was scratched by her pet, named Minty, and suffered bacterial meningitis when the animal licked the wounds in May. The woman was found unresponsive in bed by her family as the cat slept nearby.
Austin Health’s director of infectious diseases, Lindsay Grayson, said at least one person a week is dying because of the unknown dangers of cat saliva .Cat saliva can cause horrific complications, including heart failure or blindness, which can be devastating for people with weakened immune systems. Prof Grayson said cats carry deadly bacteria such as pasteurella and bartonella, which cause the ‘cat scratch disease’.He said people should be wary about letting cats lick open wounds. ‘It is a big deal and it is emerging more and more now as an unrecognised cause of heart valve infection, which is obviously fatal if untreated,’ Prof Grayson said.
Prof Grayson said anyone who has an open wound licked by a cat should talk to their doctor immediately.
This is a particular issue for anybody who already has a low immune system. If your cat has licked your wound, you should clean it with antiseptic, and if complications arise, talk to a doctor.
How Can I Get My Cat to Stop Licking a Wound?
If your cat won’t stop licking at its wound, you have several options.
1) How to Heal an Open Wound on a Cat
It’s unfair to expect that your cat will stop licking its wound if the wound isn’t healing. As such, you should look to heal your cat’s open wound as soon as possible. You should therefore talk to a vet and have it fixed as soon as possible.
One thing the vet can do is stitch the wound. This is the same as when you get stitches for an open wound. They will first trim away any dead skin and flesh, if there is any, and then use strong thread to keep the sides of the wound close together. This will stop bacteria and dirt entering the wound, and mean that the skin has less work to do to bridge the open gap. In some cases, wounds are left to heal without stitching, and are bandaged instead. The vet will tell you which option is best for your cat.
To assist the wound in healing as quickly as possible, you will have to do certain things at home. One is flushing the wound. This is where you rinse the wound out, getting rid of any bacteria, discharge and loose bits that may have caught up in there. You may also need to administer antibiotics to your pet. Always follow your vet’s instructions with regards to antibiotics.
2) Can You Train a Cat to Stop Licking Its Wounds?
Training cats isn’t as easy as training other pets.
For starters, cats don’t so as we say like other pets do. Even if they understand us, they won’t necessarily want to do whatever we’re asking them to do. And their range of learning seems narrower than dogs, for example.
The problem here is that licking a wound is a basic instinct. You may train your cat to do neat tricks, like giving you its paw. But training it out of instincts like hunting for birds and bringing them home, for example, are next to impossible. So hitting your cat, scolding it, raising your voice or any other form of punishment is useless. All this will teach your cat is to dislike you.
Positive reinforcement like using treats is also ineffective. That’s because your cat won’t understand that you’re giving it treats because it isn’t licking its wound. Ideally, you’d want your cat to stop licking its wound entirely, so what—would you give it treats constantly? Even if you did, your cat wouldn’t know that the treats are directly linked to not licking its wound. They could just as easily be linked to not going to the toilet, or not scratching you in the face.
Using treats can still be useful in other contexts, though. You can give your cat treats when it wears its E-collar without complaining, for example.
3) How to Make Your Cat Wear an Elizabethan Collar
Elizabethan collars are also known as E-collars—you might know them as the dreaded cones of shame. These are made of thick plastic, and fit around your cat’s neck. The point is that your cat will be unable to lick or bite at its wounds with one on, provided that it’s fitted correctly. Some cats will groom anyway, not realizing that they’re only licking the inside of the cone rather than their coats!
They are typically fitted after surgery, but can come in useful any time your cat experiences a big wound. The collar will stay on until the wound has fully healed, which can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, obviously depending on the size of the problem.
If you’re having the vet fix your cat’s wound, then they can fit it for you. Otherwise, it’s a fairly simple process: you first construct the collar using small flaps around its side. You then run your cat’s regular collar through small hoops around the base of the collar. Leaving your cat’s regular collar undone, you place the whole apparatus over your cat’s head, and click your cat’s regular collar closed. This can be difficult if your cat is uncooperative, but you can ask the vet for help.
4) Alternatives to Cat E-Collars
If your cat won’t wear a solid plastic E-collar, there are alternatives available. These include:
- Soft collars. Soft E-collars are made of fabric rather than plastic. This makes it more flexible and more comfortable for your cat. There are several brands available, including Comfy Cone.
- Inflatable collars. Inflatable collars look like airplane pillows, and are, essentially, the same thing. The only difference is that they wrap all the way around the neck, and that your pet can’t take one off. Again, these are more comfortable.
- Neck brace collars. These are like the neck brace you might wear when you injure your neck. Rather than getting in the way of your cat’s grooming activities, these restrict your cat’s movement.
- Cover the wound up. You can put clothing over the wound, i.e. a body suit. This isn’t the ideal solution, because your cat will still lick and nibble the area and could break through the fabric, but it’s better than nothing.
If you aren’t sure which to pick, talk to your vet about the options they have available. They may have alternatives which they have recommended in the past, which have worked for other cats.
5) Cat Lick Deterrent Spray
Taste deterrent is a kind of spray. It’s normally sprayed on furniture to stop pets chewing on chair or table legs. However, some of them can also be used on your cat itself.
If you do plan on using this method, pick a spray that contains all-natural ingredients. Continually reapplying spray that contains harsh chemicals could have unintended side effects. Natural sprays contain things like grapefruit peel extract, or a special herb known as the ‘King of Bitters’ (Andrographis paniculata, better known as creat).
Some sprays are designed for dogs, others for cats, and others still for all pets. Pick one that’s designed especially for cats, because cats have different taste buds to dogs. Some sprays therefore won’t work on them. You should also check the reviews of the product, or the instructions that come with it, to ensure that it can be used on your pet’s coat. Bitter tastes work best for cats. Talk with your vet to make doubly sure that a spray is suitable for application.