Cats are known for doing some strange things—well, at least to humans they’re strange. And one behavioral question that comes up a lot is: Why does my cat lick me?
This is one of those questions with many possible answers. It’s usually not a medical reason, but if you are concerned, a visit to your trusted veterinarian can help diagnose the cause. Also, check out several reasons below why your cat may be licking you.
4 Reasons Why Cats Lick So Much
1. Stress or Anxiety
“A medical explanation might be physical or emotional, such as anxiety,” says Pam Johnson-Bennett, a certified behaviorist and owner of Cat Behavior Associates in Nashville, Tennessee. “Licking can be how a cat relieves anxiety.”
A cat who is anxious or stressed may lick himself, others or objects as a displacement behavior.
“In extreme cases, a cat may over-groom so much that bald patches are created,” says Johnson-Bennett, who has written several books on cat behavior. “A cat may also excessively lick himself if in pain.”
“If cat parents notice excessive licking, a visit to the veterinarian is needed to rule out medical causes,” she adds. “If the cat gets a clean bill of health, then the cause of the anxiety must be uncovered and addressed. If the cause can’t be found, the veterinarian may refer the cat parent to a certified cat behavior expert.”
Getting to the heart of your cat’s licking can help channel his energies, relieve his stress or simply help create a bond. The main thing to remember is that licking and grooming are innate in cats. They groom themselves and each other, and sometimes that transfers to cats grooming humans.
“Cats are big-time groomers,” says Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, DVA, DACVAA, DACVB, founder of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University in North Grafton, Massachusetts. “They have to be to keep their coats clean, but they also sometimes groom other cats and even people.”
Licking of others is known as social grooming or allogrooming. When it occurs between cats, it appears to be an altruistic or friendly gesture that increases bonding between them, although there are other explanations depending on the circumstances. Dr. Dodman says he believes the same motivation explains cats grooming humans, especially their parents.
3. Separated from Mama Cat Too Soon
Kittens are groomed regularly by their mothers when they’re little. In addition to providing the nurturing that kittens need, this licking keeps their coats clean, teaches them grooming skills and helps them eliminate. In a litter of kittens, the siblings often groom each other as a way of bonding as well.
When kittens are separated from their mothers or weaned too early, they can develop licking and sucking habits as adults. Ideally, kittens should stay with their feline families for at least 12 weeks, but not every kitten is given that luxury. In some of these cases, the separated feline might fixate on licking or sucking on things like blankets, hair or earlobes.
4. Social Bonding and Identification
Just like when they were kittens hanging out with Mom and their littermates, cats learn very early in life that licking is a way of social bonding. For some kitties, this behavior carries over into adulthood.
“Cats who are friendly to one another will often groom each other as a sign of affection and to strengthen the bond,” Johnson-Bennett says. “It’s the same when cats lick their human family members.”
“In a cat colony, cats often lick or groom each other to create a common colony scent,” she explains. “This is not only for social bonding but also for survival since cats use scent as a major form of identification.”
What to Do About Cat Licking
Oftentimes, cats giving you an occasional lick is cute and endearing. There are times, though, when it can cause annoyance or be uncomfortable because of their rough tongues.
“Never punish a cat for this,” Johnson-Bennett says. “Instead, be ready to distract him in a positive and fun way that will still maintain a strong social bond.
“If you know your cat gets carried away with licking you, be prepared with some cat toys to distract him,” she adds. “If he’s in a cuddly mood, and not in play mode, have a small towel or cloth handy you can use to cover your skin.”
If your cat starts licking objects around the house it, take action. In these cases, “cat proofing” the house, much like a parent would do for a human toddler, becomes necessary to prevent injury. For these cats, keeping temptations out of their line of vision or deterring them with bitter-tasting spray becomes essential.
For the most part though, when it comes to licking you, cats probably are just trying to connect with you on a more personal level. It’s a testament to the human-animal bond.
By: Elisa Jordan
Featured Image: Via iStock.com/the4js