Behavior
An orange tabby cat licking a human on the nose.
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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.

JaneA Kelley  |  Jan 10th 2018


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. [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.

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

A brown kitten licking with his tongue out.

Cat licking is a way of bonding. Photography by Seregraff/Thinkstock.

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.)

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

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.

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

An older-looking gray cat licking his paw with his tongue out.

Cat licking isn’t always a positive thing. Photography ©sjallenphotography | Thinkstock.

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?

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.

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

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.

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, tossing her off your lap, or (heaven forbid) hitting her.

Tell us: 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!

Thumbnail: Photography ©Murika | Thinkstock.

This piece was originally published on January 8, 2016.

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.

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