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Why Do Cats Groom Humans? 5 Vet Reviewed Reasons

cat licking the girl's hair
Image Credit: yuris, Shutterstock
Last Updated on November 19, 2023 by Catster Editorial Team

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	Dr. Paola Cuevas Photo

Reviewed & Fact-Checked By

Dr. Paola Cuevas

MVZ (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Hands up if you’ve ever woken up to cold and wet kisses from your cat. You’re not alone! When my cat was younger, he’d spend a good few minutes per session licking my hands and arms. There are several reasons why cats do this, but mainly, they’re just trying to communicate and show affection, as that is what their mothers did when they were born.

In this post, I’ll go into more detail about why cats groom their humans, and what to do when your cat’s grooming habit becomes worrisome.

3 cat face divider

Why Do Cats Groom?

Cats spend between 30–50% of their day grooming themselves.1 They do this to clean themselves, regulate their body temperature, and keep their coat soft by spreading their natural skin oils.

There are other reasons too. If your cat has an injury or feels pain, they’ll lick the area to clean it, thereby encouraging it to heal. That said, excessively licking a wound can lead to an infection. If your cat has a wound that doesn’t seem to be healing, it’s best to take them to the vet and get it checked out.

But, above all, cats lick themselves and the people or pets they care about because that is one of the first things their mothers did when they were born. When a kitten is born, the mother licks away the amniotic sac and then licks her kittens to stimulate breathing.

She will then continue to groom her litter as they grow, and after a few weeks, her kittens begin to self-groom and groom each other, too—an act that strengthens the social bond between them.

Finally, cats associate grooming with a sense of comfort and security. Just as most people find a hot shower pleasurable, cats sometimes groom just because they like how it feels.

cat licking owners face
Image Credit: AJR_photo, Shutterstock

Why Does My Cat Lick Me?

When a mother cat and her kittens lick each other, they’re strengthening their bond. A cat licking its human is no different. In fact, you return this favor by petting and holding your cat. But bonding isn’t the only reason your cat grooms you.

1. Showing Affection

Cats often lick their owners to show affection. You may notice that they also rub their head or body against you, purr, or look at you with half-closed eyes. When your cat does these things, they’re just trying to tell you they love you.

2. They Like Your Taste

It might sound a little bit gross to you, but your cat might really enjoy the salty taste of your perspiration. Human sweat contains salts and proteins that your cat might enjoy tasting. So yes, you are a treat for your cat!

a tabby cat licking it's owner's head
Image Credit: Caterina Trimarchi, Shutterstock

3. They Want Attention

Ten years ago, my cat may have licked me out of affection, but these days it’s almost always because he wants attention. If you’re busy with something else, and your cat comes up to you and starts licking your hands, they likely just want to steal your attention for a while.

If you want your cat to stop licking you for attention, avoid rewarding them by petting them, removing them, or pushing them away. You’ll have to ignore them until they understand it doesn’t work.

On the other hand, if you don’t mind stopping what you’re doing for a while, grab your cat’s favorite toy and feel free to indulge in some fun playtime!

4. Telling You to Stop

If you’ve been petting or cuddling your cat, a little lick may be their way of telling you “okay thanks, but stop now.” Though cats enjoy physical attention, they also typically prefer this in short bursts. Prolonged petting or cuddling can make them feel overstimulated.

Look out for other warning signs that your cat has had enough attention, including:

  • Tail or ear-flicking
  • Stretching and walking away
  • Nipping/aggression
  • Ears flattening

5. Anxiety

Cats that are suffering from anxiety or stress are more likely to groom themselves excessively, and sometimes this grooming can be directed toward you. If you notice that your cat is grooming themselves more than usual, or if you notice any patchiness in their coat, it’s time to book an appointment with the veterinarian. A vet may prescribe medication to help your cat relax.

Black cat licking a woman's toes
Image Credit: Jasmin Bauer, Shutterstock

Is It Okay to Let My Cat Lick Me?

Under normal circumstances, there’s no harm in letting your cat lick you. That said, cats can sometimes carry harmful bacteria on their tongue, which could lead to an infection if their saliva enters an open wound. Avoid letting your cat lick near any cuts or wounds on your skin.

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Although cats groom their humans for many reasons, it’s usually a way for them to express affection, and mark their humans as a part of their family group or simply because they enjoy their taste.

Excessive grooming can be the result of anxiety. If you are worried about your cat’s grooming habits, or you’ve noticed a dramatic increase in how much time they spend grooming, talk to a vet about your concerns.

Featured Image Credit: yuris, Shutterstock

About the Author

Christian Adams
Christian Adams
Christian is the Editor-in-Chief of Excited Cats and one of its original and primary contributors. A lifelong cat lover, now based in South East Asia, Christian and his wife are the proud parents of an 11-year-old son and four rescue cats: Trixie, Chloe, Sparky, and Chopper.

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