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Why Do Cats Lick You? 7 Things to Know

Ever wondered ... why do cats lick you? You're not alone! When your cats lick you, it can be a compliment, a sign of stress or more.
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Today’s weird science question covers a query that many cat parents have — Why do cats lick you? Kendraw says: “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. [My cat] 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?”

So, why do cats lick you? First, let’s talk about why cats lick you, and then 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.

Why do cats lick you? Cat licking is a way of bonding. A brown kitten licking with his tongue out.
Why do cats lick you? Cat licking is a way of bonding. Photography by Seregraff/Thinkstock.

1. Why do cats lick you? Cats lick as a means of social bonding

The first step in answering “Why do cats lick you?” is knowing that 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.

2. Why do cats lick you? When your cats lick you, they’re paying you a huge compliment

Another answer to the question, “Why do cats lick you?” Well, 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.

An older-looking gray cat licking his paw with his tongue out.
Cat licking isn’t always a positive thing. Photography ©sjallenphotography | Thinkstock.

3. Why do cats lick you? Your cats might be licking you because of anxiety

Sometimes, the answer to “Why do cats lick you?” isn’t so positive, though. 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.

4. Ouch! Why does your cat licking you hurt or feel so rough?

Now that you’ve got a few answers to the question, “Why do cats lick you?” you probably have a few follow-up questions — like, “Why does it hurt when my cat licks me?” Your cat’s tongue feels like sandpaper because it’s covered with papillae — backward-facing hooks made of keratin, the same material that makes your cat’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.

5. To stop your cat from licking you, distract her

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.

6. De-stress your cats with interactive play

Healthy play is always good for your cat. 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.

Feeling stressed yourself? Try these natural, drug-free ways to combat stress >>

7. Be patient when your cats lick you

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 or tossing her off your lap. And never, ever hit your cat.

Tell us: Have you been able to rehabilitate a compulsive licker? Please tell us in the comments how you did it.

Thumbnail: Photo: ajr_images | Getty Images.

This piece was originally published in 2015. 

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112 thoughts on “Why Do Cats Lick You? 7 Things to Know”

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    1. Bcz I am his family. Ricky is still the baby of the family of 4 that I rescued. It is not obcessive. To distract- take out the tablet, play a game for him. Or use a stick you. I give each cat, individual attention. At 64 with health issues of my own, it. Is very challenging…but I wouldn’t change it for the world. Many were already saved & these are what remains of the colony

  4. My cat is the sweetest thing ever! She cuddles, sits in my lap, sleeps with me, licks till she can’t lick anymore. Very calm cat. Found her and took her straight to the vet. Vet stated she was maybe 6 weeks old. Never been out of the house. I can leave the storm door open and she has never ventured out. She knows she is safe in the house. She chirps at me a lot. Very vocal cat. Never had issues with her climbing on things like kitchen table or cabinets. Just seems to know. She is almost 3, well as close as we can tell, and she is my blessing! Never knew a cat could have such a sweet disposition! I sure love her! God knew I needed her!

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    1. Oh boy,
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  6. I have noticed with my previous and current cat that when I am petting them they lick me as a sign that they’ve had enough. I pull my hand away and the cat switches to grooming itself or going to sleep.

  7. My kitten, Midna loves to lick my hands and feet. She’s such a little odd ball but I love her with all my heart! ❤️

  8. If I’m taking medication (pill form) can my cat get some through licking me?

    I have a 15/16 year old cat that has hyperthyroidism and he is on meds but isn’t gaining weight. I’m on medication for hypothyroidism.

  9. You know, I once had a cat named Hobbs. His tongue was smooth! I never knew a cat to have one. After reading this, I wonder if he has misformed?

    1. I’ve noticed that cats use their scrubbing brush lick for tough areas, such as my hair and a smooth lick for more tender areas such as my face

  10. Pingback: Why Does My Cat Lick Me (TIPS & TECHNIQUES) – Box for Cat

      1. I thought they meant that they sprayed their arm with butter spray to stop the cat from licking there but maybe not…

  11. Thanks for your great article on why kitties lick. My kitty and I enjoy our mutual grooming time. It lowers my blood pressure and is relaxing as well as comforting.

  12. Pingback: Let’s Talk Cat Growling — Why Does Your Cat Growl and How Should You React? –

  13. Pingback: Let’s Talk Cat Growling — Why Does Your Cat Growl and How Should You React? – Info Body

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