Cat Licking Lips: What Does It Mean?

Does your cat regularly lick or smack its lips?

As the owner of a furry feline friend, seeing them licking or smacking their lips would look strange to you. It might even look cute or funny at first.

Cats don’t do it to be cute or funny, though, so, understandably, you’d want them to stop. It’s a bad habit that can lead to mouth irritation and could mean there are existing health issues.

While cats are adorable pets who can sense when we don’t feel well, it’s difficult for us as owners to tell when something is wrong with them.

We need to pay attention to their body language, and especially their mouths if they are licking or smacking their lips. We also need to look at their overall behavior.

Sure, some cats lick or smack their lips more than usual, and this could just be a quirk. But if it’s a brand-new habit, it’s a cause for concern.

Here is a handy guide with several tips to tell what’s going on with your cat licking lips and how to get them to stop.

Tip 1: Notice exactly what your cat is doing.

Is your cat licking its lips or is your cat smacking its lips? Licking its lips shows its tongue running over its chops while smacking its lips causes swallowing.

Both can look pretty similar, but cats can do each for different reasons. They might alternate between the two behaviors as well.

Tip 2: Go through the normal possible causes of a cat licking its lips.

Is it licking or smacking its lips occasionally? It could just be dry mouth.

Is it licking or smacking its lips while grooming, eating, or drinking water? If so, this is normal.

Cats also lick their lips when socializing with each other or relaxing. It’s similar to a dog licking its lips as you’re petting it.

Is your cat licking or smacking its lips while looking at prey outside, encountering strange people in the house, going to the vet, or being petted? It’s a sign of anticipation, anxiety, or excitement then.

If your cat has flattened ears, a crouched body and wraps its tail around itself while licking its lips, it’s nervous. A cat can also show anxiety in changes in the household, their food or litter, or loud noises.

A cat smacking lips could mean they’re upset or angry. They can go between smacking their lips and licking their lips as they try to soothe themselves.

If they’re getting more upset and it’s because of someone or something else, they will growl, hiss, raise their fur and lash out to attack in self-defense. But if they’re sulking in a corner by themselves, they will smack and/or lick their lips.

Cats also smack their lips when they feel nauseous and want to vomit up something. If they go outside, they will eat grass to try to make their bodies get rid of whatever’s bothering them, and usually, get better in a few days.

Is your cat licking its lips after smelling the air? Doing so, lets your cat taste whatever is in the air.

Cats sometimes sniff while opening their mouths at the same time to get a deep whiff of something in the air or to smell something near them, such as another cat. They are naturally curious creatures, and some will open their mouths more, while others will lick their lips more.

All cats have a Jacobson’s organ (vomeronasal organ). It’s a sensory organ with 2 fluid-filled sacs connecting to the nasal cavity, and it sits on the roof of the cat’s mouth behind their teeth.

But if neither of the normal situations we’ve mentioned applies, you need to consider the very real possibility of behavioral or health issues.

Tip 3: Has your cat been poisoned?

Spot-on flea treatments for dogs contain an insecticide called permethrin. Permethrin is bad for cats, so if yours has been close to a treated dog, it’s possible they were mildly poisoned.

Toads, slug and snail pellets are other common seasonal poisons for cats and symptoms are twitching, tremors, drooling (with lip-licking or smacking) and seizures.

Antifreeze is another poison, and it attracts cats with its sweet smell and taste from the main ingredient, ethylene glycol. It can be deadly with as little as a teaspoon.

Onions and garlic are poisonous to cats since they cause anemia. Other household poisons are:

  • lilies
  • grapes and raisins (including currants and grape juice)
  • xylitol
  • NSAID painkillers (ibuprofen, aspirin, paracetamol)
  • chocolate

As you might realize, many of the same things that are toxic to dogs are toxic to cats. If you think your cat has had any type of poisoning, contact your local pet poison helpline right away. Wash off any poison from their fur with cool water, as warm water makes them absorb the poison faster.

Tip 4: Check around your cat’s mouth.

Cats lick their lips when they experience irritation around the mouth. If your cat has been stung by a bee or wasp near their mouth, they will lick and paw at the site and experience swelling as well.

You will want to remove the stinger as fast as possible using the edge of a credit card. Don’t try to use tweezers or you could break the venom sac that’s attached to the stinger.

Wasp stings will not leave a stinger since the wasp keeps it intact.

If your cat is allergic to bee stings or wasp stings, any number of these symptoms will show:

  • extreme swelling
  • stumbling
  • disorientation
  • vocalization (meowing, crying, yowling)
  • hives
  • vomiting or diarrhea
  • pale gums
  • low body temperature and cold limbs
  • a very fast or very slow heart rate

This is a medical emergency, so take your cat to the vet right away.

The best way to avoid bee stings, wasp stings and other injuries in the future is by keeping your cat indoors.

Tip 5: Check inside your cat’s mouth.

A cat licking its lips could mean they have something stuck inside their mouth, a broken tooth or an abscess they’re suffering from.

If your cat has dental issues, they will also not eat normally, lose weight and drool. An abscess causes a bad smell to come from their mouth.

Cats need regular dental checkups just like we do. In the wild, cats would normally clean their teeth by chewing on raw bones and meat.

At home, consider brushing your family feline’s teeth with a baby brush and chicken-flavored toothpaste, or giving dental treats like Greenies.

Gum disease shows gum inflammation, where the gum line is red, puffy, and it possibly bleeds. There is also a lot of yellow plaque on the molars, a bad smell, and it is not uncommon to find oral ulcers as well.

Oral ulcers of whatever origin will cause a cat to lick or smack its lips a lot. Don’t expect an oral ulcer to go away on its own, however; have a vet treat it and see if an underlying dental or other health issue is causing it.

Kidney failure usually causes ulcers on the tongue and gums. Cats can also get ulcers on their lips, and only a vet can tell what causes them.

Even if your cat’s mouth looks healthy, they could have a cyst or tumor in their sinus cavity. The main symptom of this is a lot of yellow mucus, while the cat licks its lips more than usual.

Tip 6: Rule out OCD or medical conditions confused with OCD.

Cats who are constantly stressed might lick their lips often. If you discover your cat is under high stress that is hard to manage and you don’t know the source, consider a certified cat behaviorist.

Hemp oil also helps stressed cats.

Some cats have obsessive-compulsive disorder, although it’s more common for OCD kitties to lick their fur a lot than to lick or smack their lips. They may also chew on their claws, fur, and skin, leaving bald spots on the abdomen and inner limbs.

This is a condition called psychogenic alopecia, and it’s similar to hair-pulling (trichotillomania) in humans. It’s a form of OCD.

A vet can help by providing prescription SSRIs like Paxil, Prozac, and Zoloft. Buspar is an alternative to SSRIs when they don’t work.

Some cat owners prefer to use hemp oil as a replacement or supplement for SSRIs.

Cat owners commonly confuse psychogenic alopecia with other conditions:

  • skin fungal infections
  • skin parasites (mites, fleas)
  • allergies
  • hormonal conditions

Twitch-skin syndrome is another condition which you might confuse with psychogenic alopecia. Certain cat breeds tend to groom and lick themselves more than usual to the point of causing psychogenic alopecia or twitch-skin syndrome, such as purebred Oriental cats.

It’s not certain what exactly causes the twitch-skin syndrome, which makes the cat look like it’s having brief episodes of seizures. A vet can best tell whether your cat is experiencing a behavioral or medical problem.

Tip 7: Look at your cat’s saliva.

Dry mouth from too little saliva can cause lip smacking, a condition called xerostomia. It could be from dehydration, which would be like us biting or licking our lips when we’re thirsty.

Believe it or not, cats only sweat through their paws. Some signs of dehydration in cats are:

  • dry, tacky gums
  • refusal to eat
  • tented skin

To check for tented skin, gently pinch your cat around their ribs or the scruff of their ribs. If the skin stays bunched up and does not go back to normal right away, your cat is dehydrated.

Dehydration happens after about two days of not drinking water. But if your cat keeps licking lips even after drinking, it’s time to take them to the vet as another issue is either causing them dehydration or making it lick or smack its lips.

The worst possible diagnoses are feline chronic renal failure, a stomach ulcer, pancreatitis, or liver disease. These conditions usually come with the cat neglecting to groom itself.

Does your cat make too much saliva?

Producing too much saliva could be a medical condition called ptyalism. It causes nausea and vomiting if lip smacking becomes severe.

Other signs your cat has too much saliva are drooling and swallowing a lot.

Kidney issues and trouble swallowing can also cause ptyalism.

Frequently lip-licking could mean vomiting or an upset stomach due to illness from hairballs, bad food or something else that didn’t agree with them. Your cat would also show fatigue and a lack of appetite, even for their favorite meal or treats.

Remember that cats cannot go without food for more than 72 hours or they develop hepatic lipidosis (liver damage).

Heartburn is another possible cause of frequent lip-licking or smacking. A cat with heartburn may also hang their head over the side of their water bowl.

If your vet diagnoses your cat with heartburn, ask them about giving your cat Pepcid AC.

Whatever the cause of the ptyalism, you need to take your cat to the veterinarian for treatment because it’s a disorder that won’t resolve itself.

Tip 8: Is your cat also sneezing?

If your cat licks its lips after sneezing, it could have an allergy or upper respiratory infection, such as a cold. A kitty who has either will sneeze often.

Tip 9: Is your cat licking its lips uncontrollably?

Uncontrollable lip-licking could be a seizure disorder. Chomping at the mouth, drooling and biting at the air also comes in cats as a focal seizure, meaning that it’s a seizure affecting muscle activity.

Brain tumors, viruses, and head trauma are all possible causes of seizures in cats. Rest assured, though, that your cat doesn’t experience any pain during a seizure.

It is natural to worry when your cat shows strange new behavior, like licking its lips or smacking its lips. As you’ve seen, there are several things which could cause your beloved furball to act this way, since it’s not only about lip-licking or lip-smacking itself but your cat’s general behavior and body language.

Get a diagnosis for your cat licking lips and treated and you’ll see their happy tail again.

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