A man kissing an orange tabby cat.

Why Do Cats Lick People?

Why do cats lick people? Is your cat licking your hair or face? These are actually normal cat behaviors. We look at some reasons why cats lick their humans.

Kellie B. Gormly  |  Jan 31st 2018

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. 

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