Ever wondered why your cat licks you and even why sometimes that little slurp turns into a nibble?
The most common theories to explain why your cat licks you are:
- They are grooming you
- They are bonding with you and showing you affection
- Territorial behaviour – because they think you belong to them
- They were weaned too early and are making up for lost time
- They want to give or get some attention
- They are stressed and anxious
- They have a medical issue
- You taste yummy or interesting
We already know from the dead mouse on the doorstep that your cat sees you as an inferior hunter. Oh yes, we see them selectively ignoring the food you provide for them every single day…the cheek of it.
Well, hide the hairbrush and shower gel because they don’t rate you as capable of grooming yourself either. Perhaps this is why they feel the need to do it for you.
Have you heard of Allogrooming?
This is where cats groom other cats and usually, only one from within the colony becomes the designated chief groomer (AKA The Allogroomer). This cat is usually the most dominant. It should not surprise you that your cat might want to symbolise and assert their dominance over you.
So yes, I am officially suggesting that your cat sees you as a giant hairless member of their tribe and that this could be why they lick you.
Does it feel less cute now? Naaaah!
Bonding and affection
Out pops a fresh kitten and one of the first things they experience is a loofah-tongued bath by their mother. I say loofah because this is an accurate description of the sandpaper-textured tongue of the cat. If you have been licked by a cat, you will have every idea what I mean.
Your cat was licked by their mother as a kitten and created an association that licking equals feeling safe, and secure.
The message of licking:
🐈⬛You are showing you love another
🐈You are being loved by another (I am not suggesting you lick your cat)
Following this logic, your cat may choose to lick you to show you that you are family, you belong, are trusted, and you are loved. There should be a bloody parade, 76 trombones and the baking of a three-tiered cake every single time your cat showers you with this type of affection.
You are the breadwinner as far as your unemployed cat is concerned. Deep down they know that you are positively associated with their supply of food, water, shelter, litter box access. They also know that you provide affection.
Cats like to mark their territory to give a clear message that you belong to them. One of the ways they do this is by licking you to remove other scents and replace them with their own.
If a cat is taken away from their mother too early, they may be more prone to lick you as this behaviour is reminiscent of nursing and grooming. They could be actively compensating for what they missed out on and did not learn from their mothers.
Licking, purring and kneading are all behaviours you would expect to see as they replicate the love they once had.
It may well always have to be on their terms but your cat licking you can be their way of giving or getting attention.
Let’s talk about positive reinforcement.
You know that voice your partner adopts when they want you to do something unreasonable for them?
Something like going to the drive-thru at midnight for some chicken nuggets? Well, I liken this to the voice we use for our cats when they do something cute (that annoying baby voice).
So when your cat licks you and gets rewarded with this kind of soppy praise and fuss, it creates a positive association between the behaviour and the reward.
Your cat gets what they set out to achieve from the interaction. So it worked and will be most likely be repeated (think about this principle the next time you are driving in the dark to get a takeout).
If you don’t appreciate the licking then go easy on the resulting post-licking fuss.
Stress and anxiety
Our little floofy friends are not immune to the stresses of daily life.
Licking releases endorphins and it is thought that one of the reasons cats might lick themselves is to replace those feelings of anxiety with better feelings. This licking could easily extend to you, the human they feel safe with and nurtured by.
Behaviours that are a result of soothing themselves can sometimes last after the stressful event has passed. Think about how humans bite their nails initially as an anxious response but then continue to do so out of habit. It is thought that this could be similar to cats and licking.
May things can stress cause a cat to feel stressed including moving house, the death of a fellow cat, the introduction of a new pet or any alterations to their routine.
If a cat is experiencing nausea, pain, discomfort, itching, infestation, allergies or digestive issues this may result in them licking themselves. Perhaps they lick you too because you are their source of trust and comfort and they need your help.
If you notice any of these signs then don’t walk to the vet, run!
Be very wary if you have just made a tuna sandwich or cooked a chicken kebab. Don’t be surprised if your cat treats your fingers like a human buffet.
This is an obvious reason for your cat to be slurping on you but they have been known to love the trickle of salty sweat.
Be mindful of allowing your cat unlimited licks if you have been using any lotions or potions on your skin that could be poisonous, toxic or harmful.
Why licking can be uncomfortable
When they lick you repetitively in the same place it could be uncomfortable because their little tongues host tiny backwards-facing spikes. Their real names are filiform papillae. They are made of keratin, the same substance that can be found in their claws.
These little barbs are an evolutionary genius for a cat! They allow them to strip bones of its meat, and scoop up more water per lick. Cats use them to remove debris, dirt and loose fur, to help detangle matted fur and to redistribute natural skin oils throughout their coat.
When the slurp becomes a nibble
Sometimes these little nips are referred to as a love bite. I am not referring to an aggressive meaningful bite but a harmless little mid-lick nibble.
This is often a normal part of the grooming process and if you observe your cat’s self grooming you will notice this to be true.
However, there are a few reasons a lick could progress in this way:
🐈⬛Your cat is overstimulated and wants to you stop the interaction
🐈They are hungry (my cat used to follow me to the bathroom, lick my feet then bite my toes)
🐈⬛They think it is time to play
🐈They are establishing their dominance and testing boundaries
🐈⬛Something scares or frightens them (such as sudden movement or a loud noise)
It is important not to chastise your kitty for licking you.
Remember that in your cat’s world, this is a normal, instinctive behaviour and is one of the ways they communicate and engage with you. If you do want them to stop then here are some ways to break the cycle:
🐈Distract your cat with toys
🐈⬛Praise and reward them when they are not licking you
🐈Walk away if they attempt to lick you – this will break the cycle if you are consistent
🐈⬛Wear long sleeves
Be mindful not to allow your cat to lick near any wounds as they have a lot of bacteria in their saliva and this could cause an infection. If your cat is licking obsessively then make sure you consult with your vet to check there are no underlying medical reasons for the behaviour.
Let me know in the comments if your cat licks you and whether their licks ever turn into bites.