By Valerie Trumps
We humans tend to think that when animals lick us, they are showing us their love. But is that really accurate, especially when the tongue of your cat feels like it’s sanding your skin off? Or is there some other reason they are so obsessed with delivering incessant tongue lashings?
Memories of Kittenhood
Kitty gives you a tongue bath because she accepts you as a member of her family and feels completely secure when she’s with you. She remembers how her mother gave her cleanings as a kitten and now is continuing what she learned, only with the roles reversed (unless you happen to lick her as well). Your cat is nurturing you in the best way she knows how – by keeping you clean and claiming you as her own.
Mine, Mine, All Mine
Licking also establishes territory by marking things, animals, and people with her scent, which tells interlopers to stay away because this is Fluffy’s property. Mother cats lick their kittens to establish them as belonging to her, and your cat does the same to tell the world you’re hers. Cats who are siblings or are from different litters but get along quite well together will lick each other as a form of social bonding. Licking you is a gesture to bond the two of you together.
Cats who were weaned before it was time or who were orphaned develop an oral fixation that makes them excessive lickers. They missed out on their fair share of suckling and with no appropriate outlet, licking is the closest they can get to the soothing comfort that nursing gave them. Another sign of early weaning is kneading you, accompanied by satisfied purring and what looks like a smile on her face. It probably is.
Licking is Like Petting
To a cat, licking her owner is her own version of petting you. Both petting and licking are forms of affection to her. Since she can’t pet you, she licks you instead. She has no idea that her tongue actually hurts, though.
When kitty is especially anxious, she may begin licking compulsively. That’s a good sign that she needs to be petted and cuddled to reduce her stress. If your cat seems to lick incessantly, try giving her more attention and affection to soothe her and hopefully back off the sandpapering a bit.
Why It Hurts
Your cat’s tongue is specially designed for thorough cleaning and removal of dirt and loose fur. Any cat owner whose kitty is fond of licking her hair is well aware that Fluffy’s powerful tongue is capable of actually pulling some strands out. This ability comes from the papillae covering it – hooks that face backward and are made of keratin, which also is the material that her claws are made of. The papillae actually function like a comb to separate hairs and fur to get at the dirt underneath.
No Lick Zone
While her reasons behind licking are heart-warming, and her checkered past as a kitten deprived of adequate suckling is sad, none of that will make your skin feel any better if she starts to really go to town on it. When her sanding gets to be too much, give her a little kitty massage to get a little deeper than surface petting. Or if another part of your body could use some exfoliation, redirect her there. But never reprimand or punish her for doing what comes natural. Distraction with a catnip toy or throwing a balled-up paper across the room is a much better way of dealing with getting peeled alive. She needs to know you understand.