Why Do Cats Lick People?

A man kissing an orange tabby cat.
Man kissing his cat. Photography by wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock.

Why do cats lick people? And what about kitties who lick their human’s hair? Here’s my own experience with being groomed by a cat and a few reasons why cats groom humans:

I rarely spend money on grainy beauty products that rub away dead facial skin cells. Why would I, when I have my namesake cat, Gormly Girl — otherwise known as G.G. — as my aesthetician? She love-bombs me with her sandpapery tongue and gives me daily exfoliating facial scrubs if I let her. G.G. even uses her paws as a brush and her claws as the bristles, running her front feet down my hair.

I should be honored, experts say. G.G., like many of our feline friends, is “grooming” her human. But isn’t it our job to groom them, with tools like cat brushes and nail trimmers? Yes, but cats return the favor with their own grooming methods for people.

So, why do cats groom humans? Take it as a compliment, advises Marilyn Krieger, a certified cat behavior consultant in the San Francisco Bay area. Cats groom humans for two reasons, and one of them is a sign of great affection.

A cat kissing his two humans.
Why do cats lick their people? Photography by Lucrezia_Senserini/Thinkstock.

Cats lick people because they like you and claim you as family.

In the wild, cats identify friends and family by grooming each other, which leaves their scent on each cat and kitten. In feral-cat colonies, where many females have litters, they all take care of the kittens and mark them as part of the tribe, Krieger says.

So, when cats lick humans, they are expressing the same sentiment: “I like you. You’re a friend/family.” And both female and male cats do it.

“Grooming is big,” Krieger explains. “Feel honored, because she feels that you are part of her family and part of the colony. She’s put her smell on you.”

A cat’s scent doesn’t just come from his oral glands. Cats also have scent glands in other body areas, including at the bottom of their paws. So, if they stroke you with their paws or butt you with their heads, they are depositing their scent and expressing affection and acceptance.

Do cats still love you, even if they don’t lick you?

Some kitties just aren’t lickers, Krieger says. But you can be confident that the cat likes you if he does lick you, unless it’s for the second reason (read on).

“It’s an individual thing,” she says. “If you’re a stranger and the cat doesn’t like you, he won’t groom you.”

Sheryl Nordstrom, of the Phoenix area, has two gray brother cats — Dusk and Mere. Dusk often licks her hand when she pets his tummy, after grabbing her hands with his paws.

“I love it when he grabs my hand and licks it,” Nordstrom says about Dusk “He is a very sweet kitty.”

Mere, on the other hand, loves to sit on laps but doesn’t lick, she says.

Why do cats lick your hair?

“Brushing” a human’s hair, like G.G. does, is not as common of a grooming behavior as licking, Krieger says. Some cats also might chew on your hair, but don’t let them, she says: Your cat could ingest your hair, and they do enough of that with their own. Also, if your cat licks you, make sure you aren’t wearing makeup or anything that could be toxic, Krieger cautions.

Cats don’t always lick humans because they love them.

The other reason that cats groom humans isn’t as personal or flattering. You may be wearing something on your skin or hair — lotions, cleansers, etc. — that smells or tastes yummy to them, Krieger says. Or, maybe you have the residue of tuna juice on your fingers after mealtime.

Whether you are loved or yummy, just like not all cats groom people, not all human “groomees” enjoy it. If the licking or grooming annoys you, don’t reinforce the behavior by rewarding it, Krieger says.

“Some people don’t want to be slimed; some people think it’s really cute,” she says. “I have some clients whose cats do that while they are sleeping, and it’s to get their attention or food.”

Thumbnail: Photography by wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock. 

Read more about cat grooming and licking on Catster.com:

11 thoughts on “Why Do Cats Lick People?”

  1. I have four cats , my male cat doesn’t lick me , but he does head butt me and rub against me , my two older female cats , baby kitty and queen groom me , they are more of cuddlers and groomers , now my youngest cat ( sweetie ) she rarely does

  2. Roseanne Tridle

    I have a 12 yr. old Bomby male cat. He’s so lovey and wants to sleep right in my face in bed. He also likes to lick me but I don’t like that so won’t let him but he tries to very often so I know it’s a sign of his loving me.

  3. I have 3 very different cats.
    Nemo my older of the 3 is a soppy bear, he loves everyone and if youre a female with a handbag, he loves you even more. He licks and needs and also likes to pounce in you for a fuss if youre fast asleep.

    Penny, my kitten sized cat, is a strange one, i have had her since newborn, she used to be quite a snuggle monster, but now you cannot walk up to her or even get close to her, to stroke her or even give her a treat, yet, if i have an afternoon nap she will lay at the bottom of my feet, on the odd occation she will snuggle next me and give my hand a lick or a nibble, i dont understand her.

    Patch my youngest at 11months old, used to love everyone, untill i was out for my birthday with my mum, my fella thought he would kind and vaccum (general housework) well for some reason it scared patch and jumped on the t.v which fell on him and broke. Now whenever he hears my door he runs and hides and doesnt come out for hours untill after someone has left (any visitor)
    He adores me still, and makes its known, with lots of snuggles, purrs and kisses, plus head buts.
    Cats are funny buggers but i do love them :)

  4. My tabby cat Smokey, licks my bald head every morning between 2am-4am to let me know he wants to eat. Once he’s done eating, he comes back to lick me so more and then head butts me , caresses my face with his paws, sleeps with me for a bit, then he goes to either the bottom of my bed to sleep or beside my head. I’ve never had such a lovable cat. I had him since he was 8 weeks old. I love him beyond words. Once he had a cough for a few weeks and I actually cried because the vet said he had a lump in his neck, but a second opinion, proved it was not a lump!

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  7. Our little kitten Nemo is a Ragdoll boy with a great nature. Every morning at the same time he starts showing his affection (mostly when we are asleep). He mostly concentrates on me and not my partner. He starts kneading my throat and starts sucking my ear like crazy. He does not stop for hours sometimes and we are trying to make him stop gently since we want to sleep. Apparently this is completely normal and is just a sign of love. Does anyone have the same when th their kitten?
    Sophie & Daniel & Nemo

  8. My cat will lick me only when I’m in a certain position. I have to be laying on my left side with my arm propped up on a pillow. She’ll come over slowly and lay down in front of me. She knows I don’t like to be licked, so she act like she’s just lying her head on my arm. Then very slowly her little tongue will creep out and lick. It’s hilarious!

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  10. My 12 year old cat has licked and nipped her whole life. If she likes you she will lick your hand 3x and then nip your hand. Always 3x then the nip. She will do it 4-5 times in a row. It’s her way of saying I love you.

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