Dr. Mark is a veterinarian with over 40 years of experience in the field. He works with dogs, cats, exotics, and livestock.
What Can I Do to Stop My Kitten From Suckling My Skin?
"I adopted a very small (1.1 lb) kitten from a shelter, not being sure that she was even weaned. Immediately after picking her up and holding her, she started suckling my neck. I thought she'd get over the behavior, but even so, I typically discouraged it by gently saying "No" and pulling her away. She will then try to find any other exposed skin and start suckling whatever skin she can find.
She is still very insistent that she be able to suckle my skin. No matter how many times I say "No" and pull her away, she immediately starts again. I allowed her to get comfortable in the house before attempting to separate us to avoid the behavior, but she gets very anxious if I am in a room (or she is) with a closed door. Again, as soon as I pick her up or lie down, she immediately starts to suckle. Early on I tried a kitten bottle with kitty milk, nipples from doll bottles, and premie baby pacifiers—she won't take anything except my skin.
The shelter told me she was 8–10 weeks old when I got her...I am not so sure of that. I suspect that she wasn't weaned at all or wasn't weaned properly and maybe has a "need" to continue this.
Any suggestions on what I can do to stop the suckling? She got her spay surgery last week, and that hasn't stopped her suckling. She loves being around me—she plays (almost to excess! the kitten only sleeps about 6–8 hours out of 24!), eats, and drinks well. I'm hoping this is something that can be resolved and we don't go through her entire life with this issue. Thank you." —Peggy
Common "Solutions" Don't Address the Root Issue
The most common reply to kitten suckling problems has typically been to "just say no". But as you've discovered, saying no may not stop the behavior. (Even when it does, it does not deal with the problem, which is a stressed kitten that was weaned too early.)
The second suggestion was always to provide an alternative play toy when a kitten tries to suckle, but it sounds like you have already tried that too. It also does not address the problem.
How to Reduce Stress in Kittens
The alternative is to help the kitten deal with the stress by replacing the pheromone that a mother cat puts out to comfort her kittens. If her mother were feral, she would have been with her until weaning and probably several months more than that. Cats do not display this suckling behavior out of hunger; they miss the comfort of their mother.
If she spends most of her time in one room, you can get by with one diffuser, but if she is all over the house you will need more than one. Make sure at least one is close to her bed so that she has a place she can call home.
Risks of Weaning a Kitten Too Early
Cats that are weaned before 8 weeks of age have increased aggression (1), both directed at other cats and towards humans. If aggression is handled early, it is easy to deal with but once it becomes a problem many cats end up being taken to a shelter.
Feliway, the pheromone diffuser discussed above, may also help calm her and prevent the development of aggression issues.
Increased Risk of Obesity
A study completed in 2021 has also shown that kittens that are taken away from their mother too soon are also prone to obesity later in life. (2) If this is true, it means that your kitten is going to be at greater risk as she grows and her weight needs to be watched, as obese cats are prone to many more health issues as they age.
Cats are a lot harder to weight-control than some other pets, but as soon as she becomes an adult you will probably want her on a low-calorie diet.
(1) Ahola MK, Vapalahti K, Lohi H. Early weaning increases aggression and stereotypic behaviour in cats. Sci Rep. 2017 Sep 4;7(1):10412. doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-11173-5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5583233/
(2) van Lent D, Vernooij JCM, Corbee RJ. Kittens That Nurse 7 Weeks or Longer Are Less Likely to Become Overweight Adult Cats. Animals (Basel). 2021 Dec 1;11(12):3434. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8697871/
This article is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from your veterinarian. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2022 Mark dos Anjos DVM