Most of the time cats are a source of amusement, but sometimes they can be a source of embarrassment. While pet owners may enjoy watching a cat play with a plastic mouse or chase the red beam from a laser light, they may not be amused at some of their other activities. One of the more embarrassing things that cats do is to lick their “private” parts. There is no sex discrimination associated with the act of licking and there is no polite way to discuss it. A male cat will lick his penis. A female cat will lick her vulva. And they will both lick their anal regions. This less than appealing behavior annoys pet owners everywhere.
Is licking private parts ever acceptable?
In the cat world, a moderate degree of licking is part of normal grooming behavior. For example, a male or female cat may lick the genital area after urinating as a means of cleaning the area. When this is the case, licking is only related to elimination and is not persistent. Just a quick swipe of the area takes care of business.
It is not as common for cats to lick the anal area after eliminating; however, if the stool is sticky or watery, the cat may feel the need to tidy up a bit, especially if litter gets stuck around the anus. Normal, firm bowel movements are not usually followed by licking.
When is licking private parts considered a problem?
Frequent or sustained licking of the urogenital (urinary and genital) area may indicate that a medical problem exists. Alert your veterinarian if you see any of the following signs:
- swollen or red penis, vulva, or anus
- presence of pustules (pimples) or red bumps on the skin
- discoloration of the skin (black or rust colored)
- straining to urinate
- increased frequency of urination
- scooting or rubbing the rectal area on the ground
- presence of a foul odor between eliminations
- discharge from penis or vulva
What causes the conditions associated with licking?
There are several medical reasons that prompt a cat to persistently lick the genital or anal regions. Here are some of the more common problems:
Urinary Tract Infection or Bladder Stones/Crystals. Cats with a bladder infection or stone/crystal materials may lick the penis or vulva for an extended period after urinating or may lick between eliminations. They may urinate more frequently and may strain to urinate. Often, they feel an urgency to urinate and produce very little urine. Bladder infections are fairly common and are caused by bacteria that usually respond to treatment with antibiotics. Multiple oral antibiotics are readily available in both pill and liquid forms and are quite effective in resolving bladder infections. Injectable antibiotics are typically reserved for in hospital treatment. A long-term drug called cefovecin (brand name Covenia®) may be useful for treatment. The addition of supplements or special diets (such as Hill's® Prescription Diet® c/d®, Royal Canin® Urinary SO™, or Purina® Pro Plan® Veterinary Diets Urinary St/Ox™) to the treatment regimen may alter the environment in the bladder and help prevent repeated infections. If the upper urinary tract or kidneys are infected, the treatment may be prolonged for 4-6 weeks on average. Laboratory tests, including urinalysis, urine culture, and blood tests will help determine the best course and length of therapy.
Allergies. Environmental and food allergies can both cause itching in the genital area. When a food allergy is the culprit, the itching occurs all year long, while environmental allergies are generally seasonal, depending on what plants or trees are pollinating, unless the inciting allergen is indoors. Avoiding the allergen will decrease licking. For example, indoor-outdoor cats with environmental allergies should go outside in the early morning and late evening when the dew on the ground reduces pollen in the air. For indoor cats, windows should only be opened during these times as well. After going outside, your cat’s feet, belly, and any other area that contacts the ground should be cleaned with a damp towel or baby wipe to remove some of the pollen attached to the hair. This will reduce the amount of pollen, not eliminate it, but it will minimize exposure to the offending allergen. Food allergies are triggered when the cat is sensitized to proteins (typically chicken, beef, or pork) or other molecules in the food. These allergies can be controlled by feeding the cat a hypo-allergenic diet with unique natural novel proteins (such as lamb, salmon, kangaroo, rabbit, etc.), or hydrolyzed or man-made proteins to which the cat has not been exposed. Both food and environmental allergies may require medical therapy as well as avoidance therapy. Immune modulating medications including hyposensitization injections (allergy desensitization), cyclosporine (brand name Atopica® and topical treatments are available that provide safe, effective, long-term allergy relief without the side effects of steroids. Steroids (usually prednisolone) can be effective but are often reserved for severe cases or as a last resort. Antihistamines have variable effectiveness with cats and are used less often.
Skin Infection. The presence of bacteria and yeast on the skin is normal; however, if either appears in excess, if the skin barrier is unhealthy, or if the cat is immunocompromised, an infection can occur. Bacterial or yeast infections of the skin can be very itchy and result in constant licking of the affected area. The presence of pustules or red bumps usually indicates a bacterial infection and warrants antibiotic therapy. A musty odor or reddish-black discoloration of the skin may indicate a yeast infection that requires an additional treatment. Both bacterial and yeast infections usually respond better when topical therapy in the form of medicated shampoos or wipes are added to the oral treatment regimen.
Anal Gland Impaction. Cats have two anal glands, remnants of scent glands, located near the rectum. These glands fill with smelly fluid and empty themselves when pressure is applied by the rectal muscles during a bowel movement. When working normally, pets and their owners do not even realize that anal glands are there; however, when anal glands become over-filled, they become readily apparent. Impacted glands emit a noxious odor and the anal area may become swollen and irritated. In response to the irritation, the cat may lick the rectal region or scoot and rub the anus on the ground. Manually evacuating the distended anal glands via hand manipulation usually resolves the problem. If ignored, an impaction may occur as the fluid becomes so thick that it does not flow through the narrow opening to the rectum. Impaction often leads to infection. Severe infections may lead to the formation of an abscess that ruptures through the skin to the outside area around the anus. These infections require treatment with antibiotics (common choices include amoxicillin, cephalexin, or fluoroquinolones). Oral, topical, or injectable forms of antibiotics may be used. Pain medication and warm water soaks may alleviate the discomfort. Repeated infections may require surgical removal of the glands.
Cats are always going to lick their private parts. If your cat licks more than she should, see your veterinarian for help. Appropriate medical therapy can reduce your cat’s discomfort.