Today’s weird science question comes from Kendraw: “My cat is obsessed with licking me. She will tolerate pets, but what she really wants to do when she needs attention is to lick me anywhere she can get skin. She won’t lick my face, thank goodness, but my arm, elbow, and hand are fair game! She will literally hold me down in her paws and clean me. And it’s not just a few licks; she gets quite thorough about it. I’ve tried bitter spray. No luck. I know it’s a sign of affection, but is there any way I can gently get her to stop?” Well, Kendraw, you’ve got a question and I’ve got some answers. First I’ll talk about why cats lick, and then I’ll give you some tips on how to persuade your cat that there are much more awesome options than grooming you until your skin is raw.
Kittens groom each other, and older cats who aren’t related but get along well also spend time grooming one another. Often they’ll get the spots that are hard for a cat to reach by themselves, such as the top of the head and inside the ears. Exchanging scents through grooming also increases the bond between a pair of cats. (One Catster writer documented her attempt at licking her cat back.)
A tongue bath from your cat is an indication that she feels totally safe in your presence. You are truly a member of her family, and she reinforces that by cleaning you like her mother cleaned her when she was a kitten.
Your kitty’s tongue feels like sandpaper because it’s covered with papillae — backward-facing hooks made of keratin, the same material that makes your kitty’s claws. The papillae help cats rasp meat off bones, and they also assist in grooming by acting like a comb to pull out loose fur and dirt.
Some cats get so stressed that they begin licking compulsively. (One mysterious condition is called feline hyperesthesia.) Cats who lick themselves bald are often trying to comfort themselves because they’re stressed. Other compulsive kitties might lick and suck on fabric, plastic, or even your skin.
Learn the signs that your cat is about to start licking. Before she starts washing your arm raw, redirect her attention with a toy. If your cat likes catnip, slip a catnip-filled kicker toy in front of her when she’s about to lick you. If she’s not a catnip fan, try a treat-dispensing toy instead.
Play is always good. It keeps your cat fit and trim, and it strengthens the bond between you. Not only that, but the chemicals released during exercise help your cat to relax and feel content.
It’s not easy to retrain a cat who has gotten used to performing a habitual behavior such as licking. Remember to stay gentle and avoid yelling or intense physical reactions like shoving your cat, tossing her off your lap, or (heaven forbid) hitting her.
Have you been able to rehabilitate a compulsive licker? Please tell us in the comments how you did it. And, as always, if you have any other weird science questions, ask me by leaving a comment!
More science-y stuff by JaneA Kelley:
About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer, and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their cat advice column, Paws and Effect, since 2003. JaneA dreams of making a great living out of her love for cats.