Kitties are pretty dang cute with their silky fur and fuzzy mitts. That makes it all the more surprising to learn their tongues have the texture of a low-grit sandpaper! Pet parents don’t necessarily figure this out until they’re on the receiving end of some ferocious cat licking, which can sometimes feel super uncomfortable. So why do cats lick you?
Turns out, there are a few key theories about what it means when a cat licks you—and it’s not just because they’re trying to cause trouble. Determined to get to the bottom of this issue, we spoke to a couple veterinarians about why cats lick you and how you can curb the behavior.
Why Cats Lick Their Parents
Every cat is different, but these are the most common reasons why cats lick you.
1. It’s a Sign of Affection
In some cases, your kitty gives you a tongue bath because they consider you a member of their family and feels completely secure when they’re with you. They remembers how their mother gave them cleanings as a kitten and now is continuing what they learned.
“Kittens are licked by their mother cats, so straight out of the womb kittens are conditioned that being licked is a form of affection,” explains Dr. Amanda Williams, chief veterinarian and medical director of Furry Friends Adoption, Clinic & Ranch. “Throughout their lives, cats lick one another if they live in a multi-cat household.”
Since cats give and receive love to one another through licking, it only makes sense that they’d lick their favorite people, too! Think of it as their way of giving you kisses and showing how much they love and appreciate you. Aw!
2. They’re Claiming You as Their Own
Licking is also a way to mark and establish their territory, which includes cat toys, other animals and you! When your cat licks you, it leaves behind their distinct scent which tells interlopers to stay away—this person has belongs to them alone.
Mother cats may lick their kittens to establish them as belonging to her, and your cat does the same to tell the world you’re theirs. Cats who are siblings or are from different litters but get along quite well together will lick each other as a form of social bonding. Licking you is a gesture to bond the two of you together.
3. Pacifier Substitute
Cats who were orphans or weaned before they were ready can sometimes develop an oral fixation that makes them excessive lickers. The idea is that they missed out on their fair share of suckling and, with no appropriate outlet, licking is the closest they can get to the soothing comfort that nursing gave them. Another sign of early weaning is kneading you, accompanied by satisfied purring and what looks like a smile on their face.
4. They’re Self-Soothing
While a cat may lick themselves for many reasons—including regular grooming behaviors—licking can be self-soothing as well. It’s sort of like when a baby sucks their thumb. In some cases it’s a second-nature thing that they do because it’s a familiar part of their routine. In other cases, they might be licking excessively because it distracts them from something that’s causing discomfort or stress.
“If you notice your cat licking themselves, people or objects more than normal, it's best to first make sure there's no underlying medical cause by having your veterinarian examine your cat,” notes Dr. Michelle Lugones, a veterinarian at Best Friends Animal Society.
5. They Might Be Anxious
Another common reason for excessive cat licking is stress or anxiety. If you notice this behavior, you should try to determine what’s causing your cat to feel anxious so you can remove the trigger or work to desensitize your cat to that stimuli.
“Every cat has different stress triggers, so addressing any stress in the home environment is also important,” says Dr. Lugones. “[It helps to] have daily play and quality time with your cat, and to make sure they have scratch pads and perches in the home so they can carry out regular cat behaviors of scratching and hunting.”
Depending on the underlying cause of the excessive licking, your veterinarian can help you address any medical or behavioral conditions that are causing it. Find out more about anxiety in cats.
6. They Like How You Taste
Many animals, including cats, like to lick because they simply enjoy the taste. As strange as it sounds, salty skin, lotion and even perfume can all be tempting for your kitty.
“Our sweat contains sugar and salt that cats are interested in licking,” says Dr. Williams. “If you don’t want your cat licking your sweat, wipe off and cool down before hanging out with your cat.”
For perfume and lotion, she suggests keeping your cat out of the room while you apply the product and, when possible, to cover the areas of your body that have lotion on them with clothing when you do interact with your cat.
7. They’re Trying to Tell You Something’s Wrong
A cat could be licking you to get your attention, not only because that cat is bored and wants you to play, but to perhaps communicate that something’s wrong.
“If the licking behavior is out of the ordinary for your cat, consult with your vet to see if there is a medical issue, such as a stomach issue, injury or wound,” Dr. Williams advises.
Dr. Lugones adds that if you see them licking the same spot on their own body, it could indicate that there’s a wound they’re trying to heal. “Cats may over-groom themselves if they have allergies, fleas, a skin infection, or are in pain,” she says.
If you have any concerns about excessive licking, consult with your veterinarian so you can work together to find the root of the concern and treat it.
Why It Hurts
No matter the reason, a cat’s tongue on your skin can feel uncomfortable—and sometimes even painful! In fact, a cat’s powerful tongue is capable of actually pulling out strands of your hair. If you take a close look at your cat’s tongue, you’ll see that it has a bunch of sharp, hair-like pieces on it.
These “papillae”—which are essentially hooks made from keratin that face backward—create a surface that’s akin to sandpaper. It sounds strange, but papillae are really important for a cat’s grooming. They seem to function like a comb to separate hairs and fur to get at the dirt underneath.
Is It Safe to Let Your Cat Lick You?
Yes—generally speaking, it is safe to let your cat lick you. The only exceptions would be if you had a harmful substance on your skin that posed a risk for your cat, or if you had any wounds or skin issues that could be exacerbated by the licking.
That said, it can be pretty uncomfy.
“Depending on how sensitive your skin is, cat licking can be more uncomfortable for some people than others since the cat’s tongue is so coarse,” says Dr. Williams. “If you have very sensitive skin, it could conceivably irritate your skin. And if you have an allergy to cats, you’re more likely to have a negative reaction if a cat licks you versus someone without an allergy.”
How to Stop a Cat from Licking You
While your cat’s reasons for licking are often heartwarming, we’d understand if you’d prefer they cut it out. Try these tips to reduce your cat’s licking:
- Distract them with toys or catnip, or place them on their scratching post—all things that could prove more fun for your cat than licking you.
- Walk away from your cat when they lick you.
- Gently redirect their mouth away from you when they lick you.
- Wear long sleeves or cover your skin with a towel or blanket around your cat.
- If your cat dislikes a certain perfume or lotion that you wear, rub it on your skin to deter them from licking
- Avoid petting or talking to your cat when they lick; attention could reinforce the behavior.
Never scold or punish your cat, but do employ the tips above to curb the behavior.
The bottom line is that cat licking is an innate behavior. There are ways to curb the behavior, and it’s important to be mindful of situations when the licking becomes concerning. When in doubt, reach out to your veterinarian for insight and solutions.