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Ask the Doctor September 2013 Issue

Dear Doctor - A young cat who suckles

Letter to Tufts Veterinarians

Q My husband and I adopted a tiny kitten from a shelter about three summers ago. Mikey has turned into a wonderful black-and-white adult cat — athletic, affectionate, smart and well-behaved. He does have one strange quirk, however, and that’s the reason for this letter.

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Premature weaning can sometimes result in an adult cat who suckles on the ear lobes or fingertips of his owner.

Whenever he’s on my husband’s lap, he will gradually move himself up onto my husband’s chest and settle in to suck on his ear! (Mikey doesn’t display this behavior when he’s cuddling with me, however.)

Can you explain this strange behavior and what it might mean? It doesn’t really bother us, but we are intrigued.
Elsa McCormick

A Dear Elsa: Kittens who have been prematurely weaned or hand raised often suckle on their owner’s fingertips or ear lobes. This happens because natural suckling on their mom was not possible and they have displaced on to non-mom substrates.

For some reason, this displaced suckling behavior does not fade over time. There is an analogy here with thumb sucking in children. I am not sure why your husband comes in for this uncalled-for attention but maybe he is the favored one — the one your cat looks up to as his erstwhile parent.
Nicholas Dodman, BVMS
Animal Behavior Clinic Director
Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University

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