Why does my cat lick me?
I once overheard a co-worker at the shelter where I volunteer baby-talking to one of the cats. “Aren’t you the sweetest?” she cooed. “I love, love, love your little kisses!”
Although I never asked, I assumed the cat was licking my fellow volunteer. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d heard a cat-lover refer to a cat’s licks as “kisses.”
Are they kisses? When a cat licks you, is she trying to share physical affection with her mouth the way a human would, but without the purse-able lips?
A cat’s lick means something to the cat, but probably not exactly what a kiss means to us.
Why does my cat lick my hand when I pet her?
Why do you pet a cat? I’ll guess that you find it soothing to stroke a living thing that is so soft and warm. It’s a relaxing, almost hypnotic behavior, and touching a cat’s silky coat produces a pleasant sensation on the skin, too. If you feel emotionally connected to your cat, petting adds a physical dimension to that closeness. You are probably thinking about how your cat feels, too. I’m sure you assume that petting is pleasant for him, too, like when someone gives you a little back scratch or a gentle massage.
But what does your cat think you are doing when you are petting her? To a cat, petting isn’t just like a backrub. It means something different.
What does petting mean to a cat and what does it have to do with licking?
According to researchers who studied how cats respond to being petted by humans, cats seemed to like it best when humans pet them the way other cats do.
Now, we all know that cats don’t really “pet” each other. But they do touch each other in a few particular ways. Cats rub their bodies against each other, in a behavior that is called “allorubbing” by scientists. Cats also mutually groom each other, and this behavior is called “allogrooming.” Both allorubbing and allogrooming are behaviors that only cats who are already friends perform with each other. These are “affiliative” behaviors, meaning that they reaffirm the social bond between cats.
(Want to know more about why cats allogroom? Read, "Why do cats groom or lick each other?")
Reseachers discovered that when a human pets a cat, the cat views it as grooming behavior, not allorubbing. How did they figure that out? Cats who are allorubbing perform the routine in a very specific order of body parts, with an emphasis on those body parts that contain scent glands: lips, chin, cheek, between the eyes and ears, and near the base of the tail. Allogrooming cats, on the other hand, lick each other’s body parts in a random order.
The cats in this study showed absolutely no preference for the order in which they were petted by people. This suggested to researchers that cats probably view petting as an allogrooming activity.
So, when your cat licks your hand while you pet him, it is likely that he thinks you are grooming him. The licking is him returning the favor. That’s what allogrooming cats would do: one cat would start the licking, and the other cat would lick back to reaffirm the bond.
So, when your cat licks you while you are petting her she is saying, effectively, “yes, yes, we are friends.”
(What if your cat grooms too much? Read this post, "Excessive grooming in cats.")
Are there any other reasons why my cat might lick me?
Maybe. Google this question and you’ll be flooded with answers like: cats lick to show love, or they lick because their mothers licked them when they were kittens, or because they were taken from their mothers too soon.
Do any of these answers have merit? They might, but there is nothing but wishful thinking and unscientific observation to back them up. In the absence of hard science, and without asking a cat directly (so far they aren’t saying much), there is no way to know what a cat is thinking when he’s doing what he’s doing.
One theory that has merit is that some cats may lick to consume what tastes good on your skin. The validity of this theory is up to every individual cat owner. Does your cat start licking the moment you come out of the shower and apply a particular brand of lotion? If so, it’s possible your cat likes the taste of your lotion. (It’s probably best that she doesn’t eat it, however.)
Does your cat lick you after a particularly sweaty workout? It’s possible, as some other websites suggest, that your cat loves the salty taste of your skin. Be a scientific observer of your own cats for an answer.
Why does my cat’s tongue feel like sandpaper?
A cat’s tongue is covered in little hooks called papillae. The papillae are made from keratin, just like our fingernails. The papillae are actually shaped like little cat claws and have very sharp tips that are surprisingly effective in untangling a cat’s fur.
Mechanical Engineer Alexis Noel was so fascinated by the structure of cats’ tongues that she created a model to mimic these little spines using a 3D printer and the scanned image of a cat’s tongue. She tested the model out using a machine that dragged it across a patch of faux fur. What she discovered was that the cat-tongue design was surprisingly easy to clean compared to a traditional human hair brush. Unlike a traditional brush which got clogged with hair that could only be removed by painstakingly plucking the caught hairs out from between the bristles, she only had to sweep her finger across the “cat-tongue” brush to thoroughly remove the caught fur.
Watch Dr. Noel remove cat hair from her "cat-tongue" brush here
Is it safe to let my cat lick my face?
Probably not. Are some of us going to do it anyway? Probably. But regardless of your current stance on face-licking, at least get educated so you can decide whether the risk outweighs the reward.
A cat’s mouth can harbor bacteria that may not be harmful to them but could be a problem for very young, elderly or immunocompromised people. Capnocytophaga canimorsus and Pasteurella multocida, are two organisms found in a cat’s mouth that can be dangerous for people in these populations. It is less likely, but still possible, that a person with a healthy immune system will become infected.
Does your cat eat a raw diet? If so, face-licking could expose you to more bacterial dangers that every person, regardless of their age or immune status, should be worried about. A two-year study conducted by the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine analyzed a variety of pet foods from different manufacturers, including raw foods, for harmful bacteria, such as Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes. Of 196 raw pet food samples, 15 were positive for Salmonella and 32 were positive for Listeria monocytogenes. By contrast, of 740 dry, semi-moist, and jerky-type dog and cat food and treats tested, exactly one was positive for Salmonella only.
The FDA offered suggestions for handling and storing raw pet food to minimize the risk of infection and also recommended that pet owners do not let their pet lick their faces, especially after the pet has just finished eating.
Now you can decide for yourself.
How to get my cat to stop licking me
Once you understand that your cat is licking you in the only way his little cat self knows how to reciprocate your petting, you might be inclined to tolerate a bit of licking.
But what if the licking goes too far?
Cat licking that seems obsessive might very well be. Some cats lick themselves bald (a topic for another blog post) and some cats seem to want to lick YOU bald.
Cat behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett explained that excessive licking can be a sign of stress and up to us responsible cat owners to identify the stressor and try to remove it from your cat’s environment. Remember that an indoor cat is helpless to remove herself from something in her world that is bothering her.
Do you have a multicat household? Examine the relationships between co-habitating cats to see if there is friction you can reduce by providing more resources (toys, beds, litter boxes, water and food dishes), and more space (especially vertical space).
Perhaps your young, exuberant cat is stressed because he has no outlet for his abounding energy. You might need to set aside more time to play with him, especially vigorous play.
Or maybe your cat is bored. Consider providing puzzle toys to exercise his mind, or moving a perch nearer the window so that your cat sit and can watch the world go by.
Simultaneously, observe and try to learn the behaviors that precede the excessive licking. Does your cat settle into a particular position before the licking starts? If so, try to head the obsessive behavior off at the pass in the gentlest way possible. Distract your cat with a favorite toy, or place a soft object between you and your cat to make it more difficult for her to revert to her old ways.
What are some things you shouldn’t do to stop the licking? If you want the licking to stop, don’t put something unpleasant tasting on your skin so that your cat gets an unhappy surprise. It’s true this tactic might get your cat to stop licking you, but it may have an unfortunate side effect, too. Your cat may begin to associate you, and not just your skin, with unpleasantness.
Never, ever, ever hit, shove, or yell at your cat for licking you too much (or for any other reason). Abusive behavior doesn’t prevent licking and can permanently damage the bond you’ve worked so hard to build with your beloved cat.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
 Todd, Zazie. Where Do Cats Like To Be Stroked?, Blogger, 27 July 2020, www.companionanimalpsychology.com/2015/03/where-do-cats-like-to-be-stroked.html.
 Terry, Sarah Jeanne. “Why Does My Cat Lick Me When I Pet Her?: Cuteness.” Cuteness.com, 31 Oct. 2019, www.cuteness.com/13721775/why-does-my-cat-lick-me-when-i-pet-her.
 Cassidy, Joshua. “Ever Wondered Why Your Cat's Tongue Feels like Sandpaper?” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 1 Mar. 2017, www.pbs.org/newshour/science/kqed-deep-look-cats-tongue-sandpaper.
 Noel, Alexis C., and David L. Hu. “Cats Use Hollow Papillae to Wick Saliva into Fur.” PNAS, National Academy of Sciences, 4 Dec. 2018, www.pnas.org/content/115/49/12377.
 Solomon, Donna. “Safely Living With Pets: Don't Let Your Pet Lick Your Face and Other Helpful Tips.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 4 Jan. 2015, www.huffpost.com/entry/safely-living-with-pets-d_b_6069134.
 Medicine, Center for Veterinary. “Raw Pet Food Diets Can Be Dangerous to You and Your Pet.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/animal-health-literacy/get-facts-raw-pet-food-diets-can-be-dangerous-you-and-your-pet.
 Johnson-Bennett, Pam. “Why Does My Cat Lick Me So Much? - Part 2.” Pam Johnson-Bennett Answers the Why, When & How of Cat Behavior Issues, 9 Sept. 2020, catbehaviorassociates.com/why-does-my-cat-lick-me-so-much/2/.
 “Why Does My Cat Lick Me?” PetMD, 16 Feb. 2016, www.petmd.com/cat/behavior/evr_ct_why-does-my-cat-lick-me.