Like many other cat parents, I set out to understand why cats lick us. Here’s some insight on cat licking—whether it means that your cat likes you or there’s an issue that you need to get checked out.
Is It Normal For Cats to Lick You?
Cats spend up to 8% of their waking time grooming (and 50% napping), so licking in general is a normal behavior for cats.1
Anyone who has been tongue-bathed by a cat will agree that a cat’s tongue is less like a soft sponge and more like a sandpaper loofah. This is because your cat’s tongue is covered in hundreds of tiny, firm, backward-facing spines called papillae. These spines help remove dirt and loose fur from your cat’s hair coat and cover the fur in saliva to keep your cat cool.2
Why Do Cats Lick You?
Scientists have not fully figured out the reason why cats lick people, but here are several possible theories.
Your cat is expressing her affection for you.
Your cat’s licking may be an affiliative behavior, which is a friendly, altruistic behavior. Mothers groom their kittens, and cats may groom one another, which is called allogrooming. This grooming strengthens their social bonds, so your cat may groom you to nurture your relationship.
Your cat is seeking attention.
Your cat may have learned very quickly that licking gets attention, as you have likely inadvertently rewarded your cat’s licking by talking to, petting, or in some way interacting with them when they lick you. Some cats even find negative attention, like being reprimanded or pushed away, to be better than no attention.
Your cat is identifying you as part of their group.
Cats communicate by marking objects and other animals with their scents, and one reason why mother cats lick their kittens may be to create a familiar group scent. Similarly, your cat may lick you as a way of identifying you.
Your cat is displaying kitten-related behavior.
Kittens knead and suckle when nursing. If your cat was weaned too early, they may have started licking you as a way to seek the comfort reminiscent of nursing. In this case, your cat may also knead and purr as they lick you.
Your cat likes your taste.
Your cat may lick your skin or hair to investigate interesting scents or odors, like an appetizing lotion, shampoo, or other topical product. Human perspiration also contains sugar and salts that cats may find appealing.
Your cat is anxious.
Licking may represent a displacement behavior, which is a behavior that a cat performs to alleviate stress. Stress more commonly leads to excessive self-grooming, but the licking may be directed toward you, too.
Determine if there are any triggers for the licking, like visitors in your home or loud noises. If your cat’s anxiety is left untreated, the licking may progress to a compulsive behavior, at which point the licking takes over your cat’s life.
Your cat has a medical issue.
Your cat may lick you and/or objects in the environment due to a medical problem. Nausea, pain, or discomfort can lead to licking. In Bambu’s case, we discovered that inflammatory bowel disease was the cause of her licking. If your cat’s licking is excessive or just started recently, take them to be evaluated by your veterinarian.
Is It Safe to Let Your Cat Lick You?
Accepting a bath from your cat is usually safe, but there are some potential risks. Cats carry bacteria in their mouths, which can lead to local or systemic infection if a cat licks an open wound. Immunocompromised people are most at risk. Acquiring a disease from your cat is very rare, but to be safe, don’t let your cat lick your face or any cuts on your skin.
Some medical ointments may also be harmful to your cat when licked. If you apply any products to your skin or hair, inform your veterinarian to determine whether the product may be potentially dangerous to your feline.
How To Stop a Cat From Licking You
Whatever the cause of your cat’s licking, you may find the licking uncomfortable or even annoying.
Never use punishment, including scolding, squirting water, shaking a jar of coins, or applying bitter-tasting spray. This may compromise your bond with your cat and may make your cat more anxious, which may exacerbate your cat’s licking.
Here are some tips to minimize the licking:
Cover your skin with long-sleeved clothing or a small towel when you interact with them, and provide a food puzzle or toy.
When your cat starts licking, get up and walk away. If your cat is licking for attention, ignoring the licking should cause the behavior to subside. Don’t ignore your cat completely, but only when they lick you. If it does not stop after a week, there is likely another motivation for the licking that needs to be addressed, and you should talk to your vet.
Try tossing a cat toy or treat away from you. When your cat follows the toy or food, then you can get up and walk away.
When your cat interacts with you without licking, reinforce the behavior by rewarding them with praise, petting, or play.
Give your cat plenty of environmental enrichment. There is never too much! Purchase a variety of toys, hide all but 5-6 toys, and rotate them every few days to create novelty. Provide vertical spaces such as cat trees and perches, along with other hiding places for your cat, and devote at least 15 minutes to interacting with your cat three times daily.
If your cat’s licking persists or is excessive, then they should be evaluated by your veterinarian to ensure there isn’t a medical or emotional disorder underlying it.
1. Eckstein RA and Hart BJ. (2000). The organization and control of grooming in cats. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 68(2):131-140.
2. Noel AC and Hu DL. (2018). Cats use hollow papillae to wick saliva into fur. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, doi:10.1073/pnas.1809544115.
Featured Image: iStock.com/sdominick
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