Why Do Cats Lick You?

We spoke to some animal expurrts to find out.

Cats lick you to show affection

Since cats have rough, sandpaper-like tongues, it’s easy to forget that licking you is their way of showing affection. In the same way that a cat licks their young or is licked by its mother, a cat licks you because it wants to say “I love you.”

“To a cat, it doesn’t matter that you are human,” says Dr. Sara Ochoa, DVM. “Once they have come to care for you, they will treat you the same way as any member of its group.” According to Jodi Ziskin, Healthy Pet Coach and Director of Communications for Treatibles, cats are excellent communicators. “They use their eyes, head butts—aka, head boopsand vocalizations” to get their messages across. Ziskin says that cats’ “gentle ‘love’ nibbles or light licks” are a way of showing affection and that some cats even give kisses!  

Cats lick you to calm you down

Why do cats lick you more when you’re feeling sad? Dr. Ochoa says that if you are sick or otherwise stressed, your cat may lick you to help calm you down or make you feel better, “just like it would another cat in the wild.”

According to Ochoa, “cats have a very good sense of illness in other members of their group,” so if you’re feeling sad, you might find your feline companion lingering by your side. “Some cats lick when they are stressed as a way to comfort themselves,” says Ziskin. “They may lick themselves or their person. A way to tell if the licking is stress-related is if it goes on for an extended period of time.” She says that your pet may also show affection by purring, nuzzling up to you, or by rubbing their head against your body. To comfort themselves, cats also engage in this habit.

Cats lick you to mark their territory

Both male and female cats are territorial animals, which means that many kitties consider their owners to be their property or “territory,” rather than the other way around. When cats lick youthey mark you with their saliva, which informs other cats that you are off-limits. Dr. Ochoa compares this behavior to “spraying”—the way that a male cat uses urine to mark its territory. So, why do cats lick you, a human, instead of just their cat toys and food bowls? According to Ochoa, licking is “a way of letting other cats know that they care about you and that you belong to them.” Is your cat getting a little too territorial? Here’s how to get rid of that cat pee smell

Why do cats lick you excessively?

Cats who lick you excessively may be trying to tell you something—you stink! Dr. Ochoa says that “in the wild, cats will groom each other to help one another stay clean, so they don’t attract larger predators.” With this in mind, it’s time to take that excessive licking as a compliment! With its sandpapery slobber, your pet is just trying to protect you. A cat who licks you a lot is demonstrating that it thinks of you as its kin, and wants to teach you about its personal grooming techniques. Don’t expect to keep up with them, though—adult cats can spend up to 50 percent of their day grooming, and are instinctually obsessed with cleaning themselves. Next time your cat licks you, don’t take it for granted! Appreciate that your pet loves you, and wants to keep you safe. Now that you know why cats lick you, you’ll want to decode more of their strange behaviors.

Dani Walpole
Dani Walpole is an Editorial Intern at Reader's Digest. She is a senior at the State University of New York at New Paltz, where she is completing her degrees in Digital Media Production and English: Creative Writing. At SUNY, she works for WFNP 88.7 and writes for The New Paltz Oracle and The Teller Magazine. She is passionate about travel, rock music, and being employed after graduation.