Persistent Wool Sucking

A guide to causes and management

Q: We have an 8-month-old male RagaMuffin kitten that suckles on either my skin or clothing. If I remove him, he suckles on blankets or the sheets on our bed. He purrs intensely while doing this. If we move him, he jumps right back up. This goes on for 30 minutes or until we can distract him with a toy or food. The reprieve usually lasts two to three hours before he starts again.

It is inconvenient, but we are also afraid that he will ingest fabric strands that would be harmful to him. We contacted our breeder, and she says he wasn’t weaned too early and suggested he would grow out of it. In the meantime, we want to be sure that we aren’t making things worse. We want to avoid punishment of any sort and try to make him feel safe. During the day, this isn’t a problem. Do you have any suggestions?


Thanks for getting in touch, and I am very sorry to hear of this kitty’s behavioral issue. What you are describing sounds like wool sucking, a compulsive-type behavior that is not uncommon in cats. While the cause of feline wool sucking has yet to be clearly identified, perhaps a few points would be helpful.

The first thing is to make sure he does not suffer from any medical conditions that may be contributory. If none are identified, a reasonable approach might be to let him continue with this behavior as long as you can devise a plan to make it tolerable for you and prevent him from ingesting something dangerous (like string or other foreign bodies). The latter can be achieved by providing him with an appropriate toy or material that does not fray, is not toxic, and has no small pieces.

As I mentioned, we don’t know the cause of this behavior, but there are some correlations between wool sucking and other factors that may ultimately help determine the cause and identify therapies to treat it.

Perhaps most interesting among these is that wool sucking appears to be more prevalent in Siamese, Burmese, and Birmans, suggesting a genetically mediated mechanism. If specific genes that cause this condition can be identified, it raises the possibility of identifying its molecular mechanism and specific therapies to address it. This would be exciting and impactful to cats and possibly to the management of obsessive behaviors in other species, including humans.

Wool sucking has been reported more commonly in kittens that are separated from their queens too early and in cats that come from smaller litter sizes. It sounds like the former is not the case for your cat, but it might be interesting to inquire about litter size. This would not alter how you manage your cat; it’s just an interesting point to consider.

Stress and boredom have been implicated as causes of this behavior in some cats, and preventing and/or minimizing these issues can be helpful. Common sources of stress may include inter-cat (or cat-dog) aggression/territoriality, new pets or people moving into the home, moving, the loss of a pet or beloved person, undertaking renovations in the home, and prolonged periods of time spent alone.

Strategies to address stress/boredom include spending dedicated play time with cat-safe toys each day to allow him to partake in his natural stalking and hunting behaviors, using food puzzles to make him think creatively, providing cat trees/perches in your home, building a catio so that he can enjoy the stimulation of the outside world safely, taking him for supervised walks on a leash with harness, and placing a bird feeder near a window so he can be stimulated by visiting birds.

It helps that you seem to know the times he is most likely to take part in this behavior, as you can consistently anticipate it and distract him with a safe toy or other activity before he starts and then reward him for carrying out the acceptable behavior. This can be a very successful strategy. You are correct in stating that negative reinforcement/punishment is not appropriate and will not work. With cats, behavioral modification is all about distracting with an acceptable behavior and rewarding for carrying out the acceptable behavior.

In some cases, consultation with a veterinary behaviorist can help, as can anti-anxiety medication, but the latter is usually reserved for extreme cases for which all other management strategies are not successful.

I hope this is helpful, and please send us an update when you can.