Updated - Jan 24th, 2023
A cat’s tongue is one of its greatest assets. With tongues covered in “papillae,” cats use these curved spines to groom themselves – spending anywhere from 30% to 50% of their day keeping their fur clean. So with all of that time spent on hygiene, many cat parents wonder: “Why does my cat lick me?”
6 possible reasons why your cat licks you
Although it may be impossible to say for sure, researchers, veterinarians, and cat behavior experts have suggested several common reasons why your cat may lick you now and again. Let’s dig in…
1. To show affection
Licking is not only a grooming mechanism but also a way cats show that they love you. Your cat is creating a social bond by licking you, other cats, or pets. This sign of affection may stem from kittenhood when your cat’s mother licked them to groom them and show care and affection. Many cats carry this behavior into their adult lives, licking their humans to pass along that same sentiment.
2. To mark their territory
Although there are several ways cats can mark their territory, including cheek rubbing, scratching (and, unfortunately, spraying) – licking is another behavior that cats might use to claim something as their own.
In this case, if your cat is licking you, they’re trying to ensure that other cats or animals know who you belong to – them!
3. To groom you
Even though your cat might not realize that licking you isn’t actually helping you “get clean,” this behavior is completely natural to them. As we mentioned, mother cats groom their kittens to teach them how to do it for themselves, show them affection, and create a bond – also known as allogrooming, this is a common behavior among many mammals and birds.
In fact, according to certified feline behavior and training consultant Marci Koski, a group of cats living together often designate an “allo-groomer” – a cat that licks and grooms the other cats in the group.
If you find your cat licking you, it might be trying to fulfill its role as the “allo-groomer”– cleaning you and establishing your membership in their group.
4. To taste something interesting
As simple (and even silly) as it may seem, your cat may be licking you because they taste something interesting on your skin. You may have spilled something or come into contact with something that left a residue on your skin – and your cat likes how it tastes. If it’s warm or you’ve been exercising, it could be that your sweat has left a salty residue, and that’s what your cat is trying to taste.
Interestingly enough, although cats’ tongues are made for grooming, they have a much more muted sense of taste in comparison to humans. In fact, cats are one of the only mammals known not to be able to taste sweets.
5. To get your attention
Another possible reason your cat licks you is that they want your attention. Whether they want you to pet them, feed them, or pick them up, your cat may lick you to try and capture your attention.
In this case, licking can be equivalent to any other attention-seeking cat behavior, like pawing at you or meowing.
6. To cope with anxiety or stress
Finally, your cat might lick you because they’re anxious or stressed. Although excessive licking or grooming can indicate a common cat behavioral problem or a medical issue, cats often lick you or themselves as a coping mechanism for stress or anxiety.
You might find your cat licking you after moving to a new home or experiencing a change in their environment. Typically, this form of licking isn’t anything to worry about – unless your cat grooms themselves so much that their skin becomes raw or they create bald spots. In this case, you’ll want to talk to your veterinarian about how to remedy this behavior.
Why does it hurt when my cat licks me?
A question directly related to “Why does my cat lick me?” is “Why does it hurt when my cat licks me?” When it comes down to it, the answer is simple.
As we mentioned, a cat’s tongue is covered in little spines or barbs called papillae. These papillae are made of keratin, the same substance that makes up human fingernails. Because cats are self-groomers, the makeup of their tongue is strong enough to get saliva down to their skin, detangle their fur, remove substances like dirt, and redistribute oils.
Therefore, when a cat licks you – repeatedly rubbing its spine-covered tongue on your skin – it’s apt to hurt a little. This is why cats’ tongues are often compared to sandpaper.
How do I get my cat to stop licking me?
Unless your cat is repeatedly licking you and grooming excessively, licking usually isn’t anything to worry about – you may even enjoy this natural cat behavior! However, it might be unpleasant to have your cat constantly licking you due to the rough texture of their tongue.
If you’re looking to curb this behavior, the best thing you can do is try to redirect their attention. If your cat likes cuddling, you might cuddle or start petting them to try and distract them from licking. Similarly, you might use a toy to divert their attention away from licking to playing. Finally, you might walk away or move away from your cat if the licking becomes excessive.
While your cat licking you isn’t typically anything to worry about (and is usually a sign of love!) if at any time you’re concerned with their behavior, we recommend reaching out to your veterinarian for advice.
Is it safe to let my cat lick me?
Letting your cat lick you is generally safe, except in some cases where you might face potential risks. Cat mouths usually contain bacteria that can cause infection if introduced into your body. If you have any cuts, wounds, or other openings on your skin, don’t let your cat lick those areas! It’s better to be safe than sorry.
It’s also important to note that some medical ointments, lotions, and body scrubs may contain ingredients poisonous to cats. As cute as it may be, letting your cat lick your skin may harm their health. If you’re unsure, it’s always best to ask your veterinarian.
What else do cats like to lick?
Besides licking their human owner’s skin, cats usually like to lick things around the house such as blankets, cat toys, and perches. You may also find your feline friend kneading on these materials.
And there you have it! Six likely reasons your cat licks you. Most times, licking is usually an innocent display of affection, however, if it becomes incessant, don’t hesitate to reach out to your vet for advice.