Cats certainly have very curious minds, and sometimes your cat’s behavior is mysterious, annoying, risky, or just plain weird. One behavior that cat owners question from time to time is why cats lick their humans, and what it means. So what does it mean when a cat licks you, and why do cats lick at all?
Experts agree there are many possible explanations for your cat’s licking behavior, so if you’re wondering “what does it mean when my cat licks me,” it’s best to consider why they lick themselves and other pets in their social networks.
Why do cats lick themselves?
Believe it or not, cats lick themselves for several different reasons. Cat tongues are equipped with fine papillae, or fine, curved spikes that make the cat’s tongue rough. They also make your cat’s tongue perfect for combing through fur and cleaning their coat with a little tongue bath.
Usually, when cats lick themselves, it’s because they want to groom or clean their fur. Sometimes, it’s because your cat is shedding and wants to help eliminate excess shedding fur for a cooler summer coat. Your cat may also lick themselves if they have a scratch or small wound, or if they’re sick or anxious.
Why cats lick other cats and pets
Grooming is an important part of the bond-building process for cats in their social hierarchies. Some cats lick other cats and pets to offer the same grooming benefits they themselves receive from licking. Mother cats will often lick kittens and others they care about to assist with grooming.
Multi-cat or multi-pet households often create the social dynamic that designates a single cat as a type of “master groomer” for the bunch. This master groomer is also called the allo-groomer. Cats with this designation take on the responsibility of caring for the coats of the group.
Cats and dogs also lick one another to form bonds within the social structure. Licking is a social activity that communicates tolerance, acceptance, and trust. Cats have other unique ways of making these same points. For example, head-butting or rubbing the tops of their heads on their humans’ faces symbolizes some of the same sentiments for cats.
Why cats lick people: possible explanations
So why does a cat lick you if you don‘t have a coat to groom?
While we can explain cats’ grooming habits through human logic, your cat may not understand why he or she is motivated to lick. But they do know that it soothes them, other cats, and is an inherent behavior that they feel compelled to do. If your cat is licking you to groom you, it’s probably just because they don’t understand the grooming mechanism, or your absence of fur! Cat grooming also becomes a stress relief mechanism for cats, whether grooming themselves or others.
Whether you realize it or not, you are also part of your cat’s social hierarchy. If your cat is the allo-groomer of the bunch, they’ll likely include you in the grooming ritual that they perform for other pets. You can accept this as recognition that you are one of the family, as it is often a sign of affection between cats.
Your cat might also lick you because they want to develop or deepen the bond they have with you, a member of their group. Licking communicates acceptance, and your cat might just want you to feel accepted as one of the group. Cats will not usually lick those they don’t have affection for, so take it as a sign of affection!
Cats sometimes lick to make you smell like them, as a mark of ownership. You thought you were a cat owner? Well, your cat thinks they’re a human owner and they might want other pets and outdoor cats to know that you’re spoken for.
Finally, cats sometimes lick their humans just because they taste something interesting on their skin. The rough tongue of a cat also has different flavor receptors than a human tongue, so things taste different to them than they do to humans. Your feline friend might be intrigued by certain skin products, human perspiration, topical medication, or other cosmetic product.
Occasionally, cats lick for attention unrelated to those types mentioned above. If your cat’s licking behaviors are sudden, excessive, or abnormal as compared to their normally patterned behavior, they may be trying to tell you something. If your cat’s excessive licking is unsettling to you and lasts more than a week or so, trust your instincts and get them to a vet. This type of behavior in cats could be a sign of stress, or an indication of a medical issue.
How to get a cat to stop licking you
Cats can sometimes carry bacteria in their mouths that can transfer to open wounds or permeable membranes on the body. For this reason, cats should only be allowed to lick unbroken skin, and never near the mouth or inside the nose, especially for immunocompromised folks.
If you’re worried about transmissible diseases, your cat’s tongue is too rough, or you just don’t like being licked, there are ways to stop your cat from licking. Try these steps when your cat’s licking has become bothersome:
- Ignore your cat when they start licking you, and give them positive feedback when they do other things, like call to you, rest their paw on you, headbutt you, or any other behavior they typically exhibit when seeking attention.
- Keep your skin covered with long sleeves or a towel until your cat loses interest.
- Get up and walk away from your cat when they start licking you.
- Make sure cats are stimulated in their environments with different kinds of toys. Rotate toys in and out of your cat’s accessibility to keep your feline friend stimulated.
- Give your cat enough attention to keep them satisfied. Be sure to dedicate some quiet time for the two of you to play and interact each day.