Why Do Cats Lick Their Paws After Eating?

Cats lick front feet after food, even though paws are clean

Cat licking front paw
Ronald Ho / EyeEm / Getty Images

Cats are fastidious animals, and they groom themselves several times a day. Yet you may have always wondered why cats lick their front feet after every meal. Even though they have not touched any food with their feet, all cats tend to do this. Food-related grooming may be a throwback to a cat's live prey hunting rituals in the wild.

Grooming the Head and Face After Eating

Cats are often cleaner than the food they eat, especially the wet food products that can splatter tiny particles and leave oils and food smells around the mouth, in the whiskers, and on the face or even the front legs. To a cat, these yucky things just don't belong there and must be removed!

Cats clean themselves with their tongues, which have rough surfaces that can "comb" and separate each hair while also distributing saliva to loosen particles of dirt. Although cats are extremely flexible, there are some areas of the body that their tongues simply cannot reach, including their ears, nose, the back of the head, and the area around the mouth and jaw. For these locations, they use a front paw as a "washcloth."

They first dampen the paw by licking it, and then the cat will use that same paw to wipe the moisture from the paw onto the area to be cleaned. They will perform this ablution ritual several times in each area to be cleaned. Finally, when they are finished, they will clean the foot itself that collected the dirt.

The next time your cat eats, watch him closely and you will witness the entire operation. Washing up after eating is another good habit we humans can learn from cats!

Excessive Grooming Anytime Around a Meal

Cat owners know that this grooming procedure is emotionally calming and settling for any cat. But just as we humans can have a mild stomach upset after eating dessert or food that is slightly irritating or allergy-inducing, cats can react in much the same way.

Cats cannot digest many of the preservatives and the fillers used in cat food products. The cat whose tummy is feeling a little bit "off," especially having just consumed a "reactive food," may choose extra grooming as a self-soothing behavior.

Watch for other behaviors after the cat eats. Does he seem out of energy? Does she want to go right to sleep? Like all hunting species, cats in the wild were meant to eat hunted prey and the occasional fresh plant matter for vitamins, fiber, and minerals. Read the ingredients list of your cat's food to see if there are ingredients that would not be found in a wild cat's diet.

If a cat were going to be reacting to something in the diet, it would be within the first 30 minutes after eating, and more likely even sooner. Consult a holistic vet for food recommendations if your cat's dietary ingredients seem a little off. Your cat may proceed to clean your face clean in thanks!