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Why Does My Cat Lick Me?

A cat’s tongue has a multitude of uses: grooming, lapping water, and tasting food, to name but a few. As well as cleaning themselves, cats are not averse to cleaning other cats and people, leaving many cat owners wondering, “Why does my cat lick me?”

Cats don’t just use their tongues to groom themselves, they also lick others as a demonstration of affection. When your cat licks you it is social bonding to signal that you are part of its pack. However, there are other reasons why a cat might use its tongue on you.

A closeup of a cat's face with its tongue licking its nose.

8 Reasons Why Your Cat Licks You

1. As a sign of affection

Try to tolerate your cat licking you. You demonstrate your love for it with strokes and cuddles, your cat returns the attention by licking you. It has no idea you think it has bad breath and can’t bear the feel of its barbed tongue.

If it gives you a lick, you can be certain your cat has affectionate feelings for you. It’s probably one of its favorite ways of waking you up every morning. Make sure you act pleased and return the compliment (with a stroke, not a lick …)

Of course,  a cat displays its affection for you in other ways but none are as important as being licked. When your cat goes as far as touching you with its tongue you are a favorite.

Before it ever licks you, a cat might work towards this show of affection by:

  • purring loudly whenever you are together
  • following you around
  • rubbing against you
  • rolling over to show you its tummy

2. To demonstrate a social bond

Another reason why cats lick people is to create a social bond. From a young age, a cat’s mother licks it to groom and forge a bond with it. Cats then replicate this behavior with their owners as a way of demonstrating a feeling of closeness with them.

Your cat might lick you and no one else. You should feel honored as this means it feels the strongest bond with you. This might be because you’re its primary carer in the family.

If you want a cat’s undivided attention then make sure you feed it the most.

Though you might imagine it to be female cats who lick to bond – because this is how they bond with their young – it is more often males who use licking to bond with humans.

3. To groom you

A white cat licking a ladies fingers.

If you own two cats who are well bonded, you may spot them grooming each other. This is the act of social grooming and they are helping to keep each other clean, especially in those difficult to reach places like the bit between their shoulder blades.

You might see them lose patience with each other and what starts out as a pleasant grooming experience can end as a bit of a spat.

Sometimes when your cat licks you, you are being ‘socially groomed’ just like another cat would be. It is claiming you as part of its family.

It may even nip you just as it might another cat in its social group so be ready to extricate yourself from the situation if you spot the signs that your cat’s mood is changing.

Don’t punish your cat if it does bite you as you will frighten it and lose its trust. It didn’t mean you any harm.

4. It feels anxious or stressed

Your cat might lick you if it is feeling anxious or stressed. The act of licking releases feel-good hormones in cats – these give the same natural high effect that exercise does in humans.

The act of licking can reduce the feeling of pain and trigger positive feelings in a cat.

So if your cat licks you and it doesn’t seem affectionate and happy, it could be relieving feelings of stress or anxiety. Do your best to determine what might be upsetting your cat and try to fix the problem.

The cause could be a change to its usual routine. For instance, if the person who usually feeds it is not home, this change could be worrying it. A new cat in the household could be the cause or a strange cat visiting the garden.

Many people use a Feliway Diffuser (click the link to read reviews on Amazon), which has been known to make cats calmer. You simply plug it into a wall socket and it emits pheromones similar to your cat’s own.

If you are unable to establish the cause of cat anxiety, take your cat to the vet as there could be a medical reason for its behavior.

5. It senses you are anxious or stressed

Cats are sensitive to human moods. So if you are ill, stressed or upset your cat may give you a lick to see if this makes you feel better. A cat knows that when it licks itself it feels relief so it seems it tries this process on humans too.

A cat licking a young girl's face.

6. To mark its territory

Cats use pheromones to mark their territory. These are present in their urine, in glands on their faces and paws, and in their saliva. As well as marking things around the home and garden, cats may also mark you as belonging to them by licking and rubbing their heads against you.

So your cat’s lick is actually claiming you as its human. You can take this as confirmation of how important you are to it. It is also a signal to other household cats that you are its property!

7. It was weaned too young

Cats are usually weaned from about 4 weeks of age and fully weaned by 10 weeks.

If for any reason a kitten is weaned too young, this might trigger it to suck and lick at things such as your fingers.

This behavior could continue into its adult life but there are gentle ways in which you can break the habit whilst it is still young.

When your cat licks you, slowly remove your hand. If it persists, place it on the floor and distract it with play. If you persevere with this, in a patient way, you will succeed.

A cat licking a person's hand.

8. You taste nice!

Sometimes your cat might lick you because you smell of something it likes. You may have been handling food, be slightly salty or have a lotion that smells good on your hands.

You could have recently touched catnip or a herb that it finds irresistible. Cats have strange tastes and can also find cheesy feet quite divine – so watch out for a toe licker!

What If You Hate Being Licked?

Not everyone is receptive to cat licks. They may seem cute for about 5 minutes but often the novelty wears off.

And cat licks leave behind a rather undesirable odor – “Eau De Cat Lick” we call it but I’m not sure it would sell all that well if we bottled it. Besides the smell, some people find cat licks uncomfortable and painful.

A closeup of cat's tongue showing the barbed surface as its licks its paw.

A cat’s tongue is covered with papillae. These are the extremely small, backward-facing barbs which feel rough on your skin when they lick you. These serve two purposes:

  • To make it easier for a cat to lick every last morsel of meat from bones
  • To remove dirt, debris and loose fur from its coat during grooming

You now know the reasons why your cat licks you. Make sure it isn’t due to stress and anxiety before you shun its drooling advances. Try not to upset your cat as you prevent it from licking you.

As far as I’m concerned, distraction is the best technique. It works with a naughty toddler and it also works well with cats. The moment you see that tongue emerging for a lick – pick up a toy and begin a play session.

Here’s an excellent cat charmer which works every time with our cats (click the link to read reviews on Amazon).

What NOT to do

Whilst researching this article I have come across the following suggestions which I strongly advise against:

  • Remove the cat to another room. This is punishing a cat for showing you kindness. It will try to follow you and if you close the door it will probably meow to be let back. Could you ignore those sad cries? Your cat will have no idea why it has been separated from you.
  • A water spray. People suggest a squirt from a water spray. How could anyone be unkind a cat is just showing its love? I would never recommend quirting water at a cat as there is a big chance it will stop trusting you.
  • Getting cross. You should never punish a cat no matter what it’s done. Raised voices frighten them. Physical punishment can cause pain and damage. Both of these methods will very quickly lose your cat’s trust and ruin any bond the two of you have.

Why does my cat lick me? -Conclusion

Cats don’t only lick themselves, they lick others as a sign of affection. When your cat licks you it is giving you some love. A lot of cats lick their owners, but some cats don’t.

If your cat doesn’t, this isn’t a sign that it holds no affection for you. If your cat licks you, well that’s part of cat ownership.

As smelly as a cat lick might be, it doesn’t really harm you. I’ve survived them all my life and have never caught any strange diseases. Just accept the love and then sneak off to scrub away the smell – only when your cat isn’t looking of course.

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