If you are allergic to a thing, it is best not to put that thing in your mouth, particularly if the thing is a cat. — Lemony Snicket
I don’t know anyone who puts a cat in its mouth, other than coyotes and babies. But I do know a cat that puts a cat part in her mouth. Thankfully, it’s her own part: she sucks her thumb (or the part of her paw where a thumb would be, if she had one).
I wrote about this odd behaviour two years ago, during our first stint pet-sitting here on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast. The cat in question is Daisy, a beautiful, fluffy tortoiseshell. She shares her cozy oceanfront home with an orange tabby named Satchmo, after the jazz great also known as Louis Armstrong. Satchmo, as I’d detailed in my first post, was plucked from the aftermath of New Orleans’ devastation by Hurricane Katrina. Daisy was a pampered puss, and an only child for most of her life. Of the two cats, you’d think Satch would exhibit the kinds of behaviour associated with PTSD, after being whipped around by such a force of nature. But he’s a fairly cool cat, other than a penchant for mild bullying when he’s bored. When Daisy’s cat-napping, which is any 23 out of 24 hours in the day, he’ll saunter up and push her out of her place. Just to be a jerk.
Daisy will hiss, but she inevitably surrenders her spot. She’ll wander off, grumpy-faced, to the couch or back of the chair where she’ll settle in . . . and suck her thumb. She does it with such gusto, making sounds like rubber boots squelching in mud. It’s always the right thumb, never the left. Always the front, never the hind (what is she, an animal?). Initially, we were concerned about what this strange addiction might mean, but after some research, we discovered, at least at her level of oral fixation, it’s nothing more than a calming device, a fuzzy soother, if you will. It’s not triggered by anxiety because, other than a bothersome brother, she has none in her life.
If it were to devolve into obsessive-compulsiveness, if we were unable to distract her from it, if there were obvious triggers, such as strife in the home (loud arguments, a house crowded with other animals, constant coming and going of strangers, that kind of thing) or constant confinement to small spaces, then, obviously these issues should be addressed, if not for the cat’s sake but for the humans in the home. Also, an older cat that has suddenly taken up the behaviour should take a trip to the vet to rule out a physical ailment or condition, like hyperthyroidism, which can afflict cats over 10. Sometimes a feline’s suckling — of thumbs, clothes, your face — is the result of being orphaned or weaned from its mother too soon (eight to 12 weeks is recommended), causing the cat to never properly mature. Mostly, as with human babies, it’s just a form of comfort, as it is for our furry Thumbelina here. Often, though, it’s an indicator of boredom, so it’s a good idea to ensure your kitty has lots of stimulation.
We always play with the pets we sit, mostly because we’re just as amused by a dangling string as they are. Activity is especially important with indoor cats, like these guys, because they don’t have the kinds of distractions of the outside world. Plus, we learned quickly with Daisy and Satchmo that if they’re allowed to laze around too long before bedtime they’ll be literally climbing the walls well into the night. So a good 30 to 60 minutes of feather- or ball-chasing helps to tucker them out. At least, that’s the rule of thumb.