Why Do Cats Lick You? Experts Offer 4 Possible Reasons
Ever wondered why cats lick you? There are several possible explanations, but have no fear! They're mostly cute.
Picture this: You’re cuddled up on the couch, with your favorite show on TV and maybe a fluffy blanket. Suddenly, your beloved cat (who you swear is the smartest and cutest cat out there) pads over and jumps up on the couch next to you. With a feline in your lap, the coziness is complete. Except instead of the warm furry weight you expect, you feel a rough, sandpapery tongue on your hand. It kind of hurts, right? Cat tongues have tiny backward hooks on them to pick up debris from their fur, and it sort of feels like they’re exfoliating your skin. But more important, why do cats lick you in the first place?!
We’ve reached out to cat experts who know exactly what your cat is trying to tell you when they treat you like they would their paw. And when it comes to cat body language, make sure you also learn why cats stare at you, why cats knock things over and why cats knead too.
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Why do cats lick you?
Cat families and cat friends groom each other regularly. If you’ve got more than one cat at home, you’ve probably seen one licking the other’s face while they lounge in a sunbeam. It’s pretty cute! But why do cats lick you? Turns out, there are several possible reasons for this behavior.
1. They’re showing affection
If your kitty licks you, it’s a good sign that you’ve been accepted into your cat’s inner circle: an honorary cat, if you will. Basically, your cat loves you!
“To a cat, it doesn’t matter that you are human,” says Sara Ochoa, DVM, a veterinary consultant at DogLab. “Once they have come to care for you, they will treat you the same way as any member of their group.” According to Jodi Ziskin, a healthy pet coach and director of communications for Treatibles, cats are excellent communicators: “They use their eyes, head butts—aka head boops—and 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! She says that your pet may also show affection by purring, nuzzling up to you or rubbing their head against your body.
2. They’re comforting you
Have you noticed your cat being more attentive when you’re feeling down? 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 Dr. Ochoa, “cats have a very good sense of illness in other members of their group,” so if you’re feeling less than stellar you might find your feline companion lingering by your side. There’s evidence that owning a pet helps you to be happier and less stressed, so some cuddle time with your cat might be just what you need to get over that breakup or head cold.
3. They’re comforting themselves
Since cats spend so much of their day grooming themselves, when they’re anxious it can tip over into over-grooming. “Some cats lick when they are stressed, as a way to comfort themselves,” Ziskin says. “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.” Because your cat is closely bonded to you, they may lick you, as well as themselves, to relieve their stress. If your cat has any bald spots or you see them constantly licking themselves (or you!), it’s best to take them to the vet.
4. They’re marking their territory
Cats are territorial animals, which means that many kitties consider their humans (you!) to be their property or “territory.” Yup, that means that one of the answers to the question “Why do cats lick you?” is that they’re marking you to other cats as their own. Dr. Ochoa compares this behavior to “spraying”—the way that cats use urine to mark their territory. So it could be worse! According to Dr. Ochoa, licking is “a way of letting other cats know that they care about you and that you belong to them.” That’s kind of sweet, no? We just wish it wasn’t saliva based.
Why does my cat bite me, then lick me?
Kitties sometimes bite themselves as part of the fur-cleaning process, and when they’re grooming you that can include some biting too! Little nips are just another way of showing affection. They could also be your cat telling you that they want to play, or conversely, that they want you to leave them alone. To figure out which it is, you have to look at the rest of their body language for clues. If their ears are up and pointed toward you, that’s a signal for playtime! If they’re flat, that means “stop.”
Why do cats lick you excessively?
Cats that lick you excessively may be trying to tell you something: They’re concerned about you. Dr. Ochoa says that “in the wild, cats will groom each other to help each other stay clean, so they don’t attract larger predators.”
So what does it mean when a cat licks you a lot? Well, your kitty is demonstrating that they think of you as their kin. Just like bringing you a dead rodent because they think you’re too incompetent to hunt for yourself, your cat thinks you need help learning personal grooming techniques. Don’t expect to keep up with them, though—adult cats can spend up to 50% of their day grooming and are instinctively driven to clean themselves. You can try gently explaining to your cat that you appreciate their efforts, but you’re really not at risk of predation.
How to stop a cat from licking you
There’s no reason you shouldn’t allow your cat to lick you, unless it makes you uncomfortable, of course. If that’s the case, here are some tips for getting your cat to quit the tongue action.
1. Move away from your kitty
Celia Haddon, a cat behaviorist and author of Being Your Cat: What’s Really Going On in Your Feline’s Mind, says moving away from your cat—or carefully removing the cat from your presence—can send a clear message that you want the behavior to stop. “Push the cat gently and firmly away or change your position,” Haddon explains. “If the cat is on your lap, simply stand up slowly so that the cat has to jump off.”
Something not to do: Lash out. “Do not punish with loud words or blows,” Haddon says. “Cats respond very badly to punishment of any kind, and it will ruin their trusting relationship with you. After all, you want your cat to bond with you and love you.”
2. Don’t give your cat attention when they’re licking you
Cats want attention, and they’ll do what they can to get it. If you react to them licking you, even if it’s a negative reaction, they’ll be rewarded. Instead of reacting, try ignoring your furry pal when they lick you. “Do not speak, or look at the cat, or handle it in any way,” Haddon advises. “Instead, turn your eye gaze and your posture away from the cat, walk away or stand up so that the cat has to jump off your lap.”
3. Create signals for your cat
Yep, you can train your cat to identify signals that you want their non-licky attention. Haddon says to grab a blanket and designate it as a special blanket for you and your feline. Keep it somewhere accessible, like on the back of your couch, and place it on your lap when you’re sitting and want your cat to jump up. “It will show your cat that this is an appropriate time for being on your lap,” she explains. “And you can use the blanket to cover any bare human skin that might get licked!”
Now that you understand what it means when a cat licks you, you can appreciate their behavior for what it is: love! And maybe distract them with a feathery toy instead. Next, find out why cats wag their tails—just like dogs.
About the experts
- Sara Ochoa, DVM, is a veterinary consultant at DogLab, a website that focuses on reviewing dog products. She contributes her expertise to the website’s content and practices in a small animal hospital.
- Jodi Ziskin is a healthy pet coach and pet nutrition and care consultant who sits on the advisory board for Treatibles. She shares insights from her 10+ years of experience, which includes a four-year stint writing a cat health column for examiner.com.
- Celia Haddon is a cat behaviorist and the author of Being Your Cat: What’s Really Going On in Your Feline’s Mind. She holds a bachelor’s degree in applied animal behavior and a master’s degree in clinical animal behavior. She also served as the pets columnist for The Daily Telegraph for 20 years, answering an estimated 100,000 questions on animal behavior.
Additional reporting by Dani Walpole and Kelly Kuehn.