Cats spend up to 8% of their waking time grooming (and 50% napping), so licking in general is a normal behavior for cats. But why do cats lick you, instead of themselves or another cat? What does it mean when a cat licks you?
Here’s what to know about this common cat behavior.
Why Do Cats Lick You?
Scientists have not fully figured out the reason why cats lick people, but there are several theories.
Your Cat Is Expressing Affection
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 cats’ 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.
Your Cat Is Identifying You as Part of the 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, such as an appetizing lotion, shampoo, or other topical product. But this can be harmful—and even toxic—to your kitty. Do not allow your cat to lick you after applying a topical product, as some can contain ingredients that are toxic to cats.
Human sweat 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 their environment due to a medical problem. Nausea, pain, or discomfort can lead to licking. If your cat’s licking is excessive or started recently, take them to be evaluated by your veterinarian.
Why Does It Hurt When My Cat Licks Me?
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.
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 it uncomfortable or even annoying.
Never use punishment, including scolding, squirting water, 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.
Instead, here are some tips to minimize the licking:
Cover your skin with long-sleeved clothing or a small towel when you interact with your cat.
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—just when they lick you. If the licking doesn’t stop after a week, there’s likely another motivation for the behavior that needs to be addressed, and you should talk to your vet.
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. Purchase a variety of toys and rotate them every few days to create novelty. Provide vertical spaces such as cat trees and perches and devote at least 15 minutes to interacting with your cat three times daily.
If your cat’s licking persists or is excessive, they should be evaluated by your veterinarian to ensure there isn’t a medical or emotional disorder causing the behavior.
Why Dogs My Cat Lick Me? FAQs
Why does my cat lick my face?
A cat may lick you for a variety of reasons, including to express affection, seek attention, or due to anxiety or a medical condition. If the licking is excessive, check with your vet to make sure everything is normal with your feline friend.
Why does my cat lick me, then bite me?
Licking can turn to biting if the cat is too overstimulated, becomes unhappy with the interaction, or is in pain. There are many ways to help stop a cat from biting, but a vet visit is usually recommended to rule out any medical concerns.
Eckstein RA and Hart BJ. (2000). The organization and control of grooming in cats. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 68(2):131-140.
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.
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