My Cat Keeps Licking Its Lips And Shaking Its Head (What’s Causing It?)

cat licking lips and shaking head

As a devoted cat parent, it’s hard not to feel a wave of panic when we notice our feline companions behaving strangely.

Our cats can sometimes exhibit peculiar behaviors that leave us puzzled and concerned. What if your cat has recently been licking its lips and shaking its head?

When cats start head shaking and licking their lips, such a condition is usually caused by an underlying medical problem. It could be due to an ear infection, dental disease or something even more serious like a neurological disorder.

I will cover as many possible symptoms that can cause your cat to behave this way.

1. Dental Disease

Studies have shown that up to 90% of cats aged four or older suffer from some type of dental disease.

This means that the probability of your cat having dental problems is very likely.

These are the most common types of dental issues found in cats:


“This condition is painful for cats and can affect their appetite or cause them to stop eating altogether.”

A cat that has gingivitis will have swelling and redness on the gums around the teeth. This is usually caused by the build-up of plaque which encourages the growth of bacteria.

Cats with autoimmune diseases like FeLV or FIV are also at high risk of getting gingivitis.

I know this first hand because my cat FeLV since he was a kitten and had terrible gingivitis.

My cat had most of his teeth removed by the time he was 5. And I had to make some adjustments when it came to caring for a cat with no teeth.

The only way to stop the spread was to extract most of his teeth. He’s been doing well with one front tooth which makes him look like a pirate

Inflamed gums are usually a sign of your cat’s immune system trying to fight off the bacteria.

This condition is painful for cats and can affect their appetite or cause them to stop eating altogether.


The next stage after gingivitis is periodontitis. The bacteria will start to attack and weaken the joint that attaches the tooth to the gums.

This condition isn’t reversible which is why you need to keep your cat’s gingivitis under control.

Tooth Resorption

This condition refers to the breaking down of your cat’s teeth from the outside.

The cat’s body starts to destroy the tooth’s hard outer layer which causes it to loosen. Middle age to older cats are more prone to getting tooth resorption.

It can be a tricky problem to diagnose as it usually starts below the gumline.

Symptoms Of Dental Disease In Cats

There are a few ways to tell when your cat is having a dental problem.

When you take a look at your cat’s mouth and notice redness and swelling along the gumline, that is already a sign of gingivitis.

Some cats will also be constantly licking their lips and pawing at their mouths due to the pain and discomfort.

If your cat is shaking its head when eating, that is also a clear symptom of a dental problem.

Treatment For Dental Disease

Prevention is definitely better than cure when it comes to preventing dental diseases in cats.

Brushing your cat’s teeth on a regular basis is a good way to keep such problems at bay.

If your cat is already having dental problems, you need to set an appointment with the vet to have your cat’s teeth checked.

There might be a need to extract teeth that are beyond repair or saving.

2. Feline Herpesvirus

“Once infected, the cat can be a lifelong carrier without showing signs of the virus.”

The herpes virus isn’t just exclusive to humans, our cats can get it too and it is very contagious amongst felines.

The feline herpesvirus (FHV/FHV-1) is a major cause of many upper respiratory problems in cats.1

The most common methods of infection are:

  • Sharing of food bowls and litter boxes
  • Mutual grooming
  • Kittens getting it from their mother

This virus is easily spread via the bodily fluids of a cat like its saliva, nasal droplets and excrement.

Once infected, the cat can be a lifelong carrier without showing signs of the virus.

Sick cats or cats with a weaker immune system can have a herpes outbreak and shed the virus on other cats.

Symptoms Of Feline Herpes

The common symptoms of feline herpes:

  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Eye and nose discharge
  • Sores on lips
  • Skin inflammation
  • Fever
  • Lethargy

Cats with feline herpes can have sores on their lips, nose and mouth. This can cause some pain and discomfort to that area.

If you notice your cat licking its lips excessively, shaking its head and having weird-looking sores on its face, please take it to the vet right away for an examination.

Treatment For Feline Herpes

There isn’t a cure for feline herpes and the best way to prevent it is to get your cat vaccinated as soon as possible.

If your cat already has feline herpes, some medications and ointments can help manage the symptoms.

For cat lovers out there who have cats with herpes, the best way to stop them from having outbreaks is to boost their immune systems.

Make sure that you are feeding them a good quality diet like good canned food or a raw meat diet. Stop feeding your cat dry food or kibbles as they contain a lot of bad ingredients.

3. Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome

Cats with feline hyperesthesia syndrome tend to display acute sensitivity in certain parts of their bodies. These areas usually happen at the base of the tail or on the back.

One way to know if your cat has hyperesthesia is to gauge your cat’s reaction when you touch it in these areas.

If it reacts weirdly, aggressively or starts to excessively scratch at that area, your cat might be having this syndrome.

A cat trying to catch its tail might be hilarious to look at but it is also one sign that your cat might have hyperesthesia.

The cause of such a condition is still uncertain. Some doctors claim that it could be due to a neurological disorder while others say that it’s a form of feline seizure.

Although hyperesthesia is said to affect the tail and back of cats, some cat owners have also reported signs of lip licking and head shaking from their cats.

Treatment For Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome

There isn’t a known cure for this condition for now but there are medications available that can help to better manage the symptoms.

It is best to speak to your vet to try and ascertain the root cause of the problem and take it from there.

4. Ear Infection

ear mites cat ears hot

Some cats are lucky to not have a single ear infection in their lives, some are plagued with this problem, like my cat.

Ear infections in your cat can be caused by yeast, ear mites, food allergies, excessive ear wax or bacteria. The best way to know the root cause is to get your cat to the vet and get its ear closely examined.

The vet will take a sample of the ear wax and run it under a microscope to identify the root cause.

Here are some symptoms of an ear infection in cats:

  • Constant scratching
  • Shaking of head
  • Smelly odor from the ear
  • Black or yellowish discharge
  • Lack of balance

The easiest way for me to tell when my cat’s ears are eating up is the constant head shaking and a bad wet smell emitting from his ears.

I have to regularly clean out his ears as his body just produces a lot of wax that can cause an inner ear infection.

Treatment For Ear Infection In Cats

Once the vet has ascertained the cause of the infection, the doctor will do a thorough cleaning of your cat’s ear.

You will most probably have to continue cleaning and applying ear drops to your cat’s ears over the next few days.

5. Liver Shunt

“A liver shunt isn’t a death sentence for cats but it’s more manageable when treated early.”

A liver shunt is a liver disease that can happen in your cat and it is considered a birth defect.

This condition causes the cat’s fresh blood supply to bypass the liver and carry the blood around the liver instead.

The role of the liver is to filter toxins from our blood and a cat who is suffering from liver shunt is unable to do so.

This would mean that the cat is absorbing the toxins back into its body which is very dangerous.

The common symptoms of liver shunt in cats are:

  • Lethargy
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Shaking
  • Seizures
  • Lip licking
  • Kidney stones

These symptoms are rather similar to many other health issues that a cat can have. The best way to diagnose this problem is to do a variety of tests like scans and MRIs.

Treatment For Liver Shunt In Cats

Most vets will recommend surgery to try and rectify the situation. But if surgery isn’t an option then some changes will have to be made to the cat’s diet.

Some medication and antibiotics will also be prescribed for the cat.

A liver shunt isn’t a death sentence for cats but it’s more manageable when treated early.

6. Neurological Disorder

Neurological disorders can be a challenging and distressing experience for anyone. It can happen to your cat all of a sudden without much warning.

A neurological disorder is one that affected your cat’s central nervous system.

The central nervous system is an integral part of your cat as it dictates your cat’s thoughts and movements.

When these signals are interfered with by something, it can start to cause problems in your cat.

A neurological disorder can be caused by:

  • Trauma to the head
  • Bacterial or viral infection
  • Metabolic disorders
  • Congenital abnormalities
  • Tumors
  • Degenerative disorders

Here are some common symptoms that your cat can display:

  • Licking lips and shaking head
  • Seizures
  • Unable to walk properly
  • Head tilt
  • Change in vocalization

Treatment For Neurological Disorder In Cats

The type of treatment for your cat’s neurological disorder largely depends on the underlying causes. Some disorders can be treated with anti-inflammatory drugs or steroids.

Other causes require surgery to help your cat get better.

Most vets will also recommend some form of physical therapy to regain its strength, mobility and coordination.

7. Allergies

Allergies in cats are more common than you imagine. There are many things that your cat can be allergic to without you knowing.

The most common types of allergies are environmental and food allergies.

Your cat could be allergic to dust, pollen, certain materials or foods like milk and nuts.

The most common signs of an allergic reaction are:

  • Red and itchy skin
  • Drooling
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing

Allergies can be difficult to diagnose due to the number of potential allergens.

But if you have recently changed your cat’s diet or bought a new cat bed, that could be triggering your cat’s allergy.

There’s no cure for an allergy besides total avoidance.

Your vet can prescribe some antihistamines to help manage the symptoms.

8. Poisoning


Cats are very curious creatures and can get into a lot of trouble when eating something that they shouldn’t.

Ingesting toxic plants at home, cleaning solutions or certain bugs can cause poisoning or toxicity in cats.

Symptoms of poisoning in cats include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Diarrhea
  • Seizures
  • Drooling
  • Lethargy

Treatment For Poisoning In Cats

Do not wait to seek medical treatment for your cat if you know that it has been poisoned. The faster it gets treated, the better the chances of it making a full recovery.

The vet will induce vomiting if required or administer supportive care for your cat.

If you are not sure if something is poisonous or toxic to your cat, you can call the Poison Pet Helpline for help.

Is Your Cat Just Licking Its Lips?

“Don’t rule out the above possible reasons as well and take your cat to the vet for a check-up.”

It could be that you just notice your cat licking its lips but without the head shakes.

Based on my experience with my cats, they tend to do that when they are about to throw up.

It could be due to a hairball or a reaction to something they ate which is making them nauseous.

Don’t rule out the above possible reasons as well and take your cat to the vet for a check-up.


1. Feline herpes – Gaskell, R. M., Dawson, S., Radford, A., & Thiry, E. (2007). “Feline herpesvirus.” Veterinary Research, 38(2), 337-354.

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