Why do cats drool?
Wait – cats drool? I thought that was a dog thing?
Drooling is most definitely more common in dogs, many of whom have folds in their lips or muzzles that allow saliva to collect until it eventually overflows. Russian physiologist Pavlov made dog drooling famous when he conditioned dogs to salivate in response to the sound of a metronome.
But cats drool, too. Most of the time the cause of drooling is perfectly harmless – even kinda cute. But sometimes drooling is a sign of something more serious. Let’s talk about the reasons why cats drool. A loving cat guardian can use this information to determine whether they should be concerned about their drooling cat.
What is drooling?
Saliva is a liquid that is produced by glands located in the mouth and throat of many land vertebrates (animals with backbones, such as mammals and birds). Saliva is mostly made up of water, electrolytes, mucus, and enzymes. It serves different purposes in different species, but in cats, it helps protect the mucus membranes in the mouth, and lubricates food to help a cat swallow what he’s eaten.
There are two reasons why saliva might escape the mouth, which is what we call drooling: either the cat is making too much saliva and can’t keep up with production, or there is some physical reason why the cat can’t effectively swallow a normal amount of saliva. Scientists have a name for the “too much saliva” problem: ptyalism.
The happy reasons why cats drool
Maybe your cat is just the great Dane of cats – just a little slobbier than your average feline. That doesn’t necessarily mean there is anything wrong with her. Here are some reasons why cats drool that are absolutely no cause for concern (and may even make you love them a little bit more.)
Your cat is relaxed and happy
If your cat is on your lap, enjoying a lovely petting session with you, and you notice a little drool at the corner of his mouth, this is probably nothing to worry about.
Likewise, if your cat is purring contently next to you on the sofa, or half-dozing in a sunbeam, or even kneading contentedly away on a cozy blanket, and you notice a bit of drool, it’s probably not worth losing sleep over.
Your cat is probably just very, very, very relaxed. All of her muscles may be relaxed, including the ones around her jaw. If her mouth is open, a little saliva might just be escaping, and she’s so relaxed she doesn’t even care.
Your cat is anticipating food
Perhaps you have a little Pavlov’s Cat on your hands. Cats, too, can drool in anticipation of something yummy. One poster on Quora, a question-and-answer website, noted that she accidentally taught her Devon Rex Daisy a Pavlovian response.
Daisy’s guardian, who loves to photograph her cat, would offer Daisy a treat every time she looked directly at the camera. Eventually, Daisy started drooling at the sight of the camera. Read more about Daisy, and see her in all her drooly glory, here.
When you should worry if your cat is drooling
If your cat has a long history of drooling, and you see a pattern of drooling that coincides with something pleasant like food, or petting, you probably don’t need to worry about a little drool.
But there are times you do need to worry. If your cat is not a habitual drooler, and if you notice that the drooling seems to coincide with a negative emotional experience, you can work to identify and minimize those unhappy experiences for your cat.
Sudden, or recent drooling, or excessive drooling that does not seem to be connected to something that is going on with your cat’s emotional state at the moment, could be a sign of something more serious, like a medical problem.
Let’s discuss the less-happy reasons your cat might be drooling.
Fear or anxiety
Fear is a response to something your cat perceives as threat or danger, even if it isn’t something that is truly dangerous for him. Fears are not necessarily rational, and your cat’s response to a fear doesn’t necessarily protect him from the thing he is afraid of. Sometimes a cat’s fear response can put him in more danger than the thing he was actually fearful of.
Anxiety is a feeling of nervousness or apprehension, especially in anticipation of an event or situation, and is often based on a previous learned experience. A cat who knows from experience that being put in the car means a trip to the vet, for example, might experience anxiety.
Drooling can be one of several physical signs of fear or anxiety, but there are usually others. Cats who are afraid or anxious may also hide, run away, hiss, scratch, bite, flatten their ears, arch their backs, or pee/poop outside the litter box. In other words, drooling will likely not be the only, or even main, sign of fear or anxiety.
An observant cat guardian may be able to notice the event or situation that seems to be associated with drooling and these other signs. Here are some common things that cause cats to be fearful or anxious:
Once you identify the cause of your cat’s fear or anxiety, you can begin to address it, even if it seems like an irrational fear to you. Chronic stress from fear or anxiety is not just a quality-of-life issue for your cat, but it can actually cause physical illness or create new behavioral problems. You may be able to remove the fearful thing from your cat’s life, or you may be able to work with your cat to develop more positive associations with the thing she was once afraid of.
Oral and dental disease
Diseases of the mouth can be very painful, and it’s the pain that causes a cat to salivate excessively, or be unable to swallow the saliva in her mouth. Cats with oral disease may show other signs of these illnesses, such as loss of appetite, bad breath or pawing at the mouth. Don’t ignore these indicators of discomfort.
Here are some conditions that can cause inflammation, infection, or discomfort in a cat’s mouth:
Nausea will cause drooling, but what causes nausea? Quite a few things, it turns out, can make a cat feel nauseous, from serious metabolic disease, to ordinary, everyday things like motion sickness from a ride in the car.
Signs of nausea include a disinterest in food, restlessness, unusual meowing, vomiting, and yes, drooling. There are so many potential causes, that your vet may recommend bloodwork, a fecal exam, ultrasound, X-rays, or even an intestinal biopsy to rule in or out a suspected cause. Here are some possible reasons why your cat may be nauseous and drooling:
If your cat has ingested something she shouldn’t have, she might not just be drooling as a side effect of nausea. She could be experiencing an actual bowel obstruction. Curious cats are notorious for ingesting thread, wool, paper, rubber bands, and small objects like paper clips and toys, in the name of “exploring” them. A foreign body is anything that is in the gastrointestinal tract that does not belong there.
Most foreign bodies do pass through, uneventfully, into the feces, or are regurgitated in vomit. If they don’t, the foreign body can be potentially life-threatening and surgery may be the only way to remove it. Time is usually of the essence because a trapped item can cut off the blood supply to the gastrointestinal tissues surrounding it.
Unfortunately, one of the more common foreign bodies ingested by cats is string. String is known as a “linear foreign body.” You’d think that an item as narrow as string would slip right on through the digestive system, but it has an unfortunate tendency to get wrapped around something first – the base of the tongue, the stomach, or the intestines. As the intestines try to squeeze the string through, they get bunched up, like the hood of a sweatshirt when you tug the string to tighten it.
If you see a string in your cat’s mouth, do not pull it. Doing so could tear your cat’s intestines.
Rabies is a viral infection that invades a cat’s brain and spinal cord. Drooling, or foaming at the mouth, is a telltale sign. Rabies is preventable with a vaccine, and I’m sure most anyone reading this post has vaccinated their cats. But it’s possible that you’ll run across an unvaccinated feral cat that is drooling and you should know about this possibility.
Rabies is a usually fatal disease that is transmitted through the saliva from an infected cat. (It’s actually more common in cats than in any other domesticated animal, including dogs, in the United States.) The virus can be active in saliva for two hours after it has left a cat’s mouth, and is transmitted to a new victim if it gets into a mucus membrane or cut. It can take up to a year for a cat that has been exposed to rabies to show signs, but it’s usually shorter than that, typically four to eight weeks.
If you suspect your cat has been exposed to cat that may have rabies, seek veterinary care immediately. There is no cure or treatment for the disease once a cat is showing clinical signs of rabies.
One final thought on drooling in cats
Chances are, if your cat is drooling, it’s nothing. Cats drool, even if we think they’re too dignified for such a slobbery-dog behavior.
But if it is “something,” it could be something very urgent. You cat could be in significant pain, or could be experiencing a potentially life-threatening issue.
Use your knowledge – of your cat, of your environment, and now, what you know about drooling – to decide if a call to the vet is in order sooner rather than later.
This post on feline hyperesthesia syndrome is also relevant to this topic.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
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