We spoke to some animal expurrts to find out.
Picture this: You’re cuddled up on the couch, with your favorite show on TV and maybe a fluffy blanket. Suddenly, your beloved kitty pads over and jumps up on the couch next to you. With a cat in your lap, the coziness is complete. Except instead of the warm furry weight you expect, you feel a rough, sandpapery tongue on your hand. It kind of hurts, right? Cat tongues have little tiny backward hooks on them to pick up debris from their fur, and it sort of feels like they’re exfoliating your skin. But more importantly, why do cats lick you in the first place?!
If this scene sounds familiar but leaves you feeling confused, you’re not alone. Cats and humans have been suffering communication problems for years: We don’t speak meow, and they can’t get our alphabet right. Fortunately, we’ve reached out to cat experts who know exactly what your cat is trying to tell you when they treat you like they would their paw.
It means you’re their family
Cat families and cat friends groom each other regularly. If you’ve got more than one cat at home, you’ve probably seen one licking the other’s face while they lounge in a sunbeam. It’s pretty cute! But why do cats lick you? Well, it’s a good sign that you’ve been accepted into your cat’s inner circle: an honorary cat, if you will. Basically, your cat loves you!
“To a cat, it doesn’t matter that you are human,” says Dr. Sara Ochoa, DVM. “Once they have come to care for you, they will treat you the same way as any member of its group.” According to Jodi Ziskin, Healthy Pet Coach and Director of Communications for Treatibles, cats are excellent communicators: “They use their eyes, head butts—aka head boops—and vocalizations” to get their messages across. Ziskin says that cats’ “gentle ‘love’ nibbles or light licks” are a way of showing affection and that some cats even give kisses! She says that your pet may also show affection by purring, nuzzling up to you, or rubbing their head against your body.
It’s how they comfort you
Have you noticed your cat being more attentive when you’re feeling down? Dr. Ochoa says that if you are sick or otherwise stressed, your cat may lick you to help calm you down or make you feel better, “just like it would another cat in the wild.”
According to Dr. Ochoa, “cats have a very good sense of illness in other members of their group,” so if you’re feeling less than stellar you might find your feline companion lingering by your side. There’s evidence that owning a pet helps you to be happier and less stressed, so some cuddle time with your cat might be just what you need to get over that breakup or head cold.
And also how they comfort themselves
Since cats spend so much of their day grooming themselves, when they’re anxious it can tip over into over-grooming. “Some cats lick when they are stressed as a way to comfort themselves,” says Ziskin. “They may lick themselves or their person. A way to tell if the licking is stress-related is if it goes on for an extended period of time.” Because your cat is closely bonded to you, they may lick you to relieve their stress as well as themselves. If your cat has any bald spots or you see them constantly licking themselves (or you!), it’s best to take them to the vet.
Or they could be marking their territory
Cats are territorial animals, which means that many kitties consider their humans (you!) to be their property or “territory.” Yup, that means that one of the answers to the question “why do cats lick you” is that they’re marking you to other cats as their own. Dr. Ochoa compares this behavior to “spraying”—the way that cats use urine to mark their territory. So, it could be worse! According to Dr. Ochoa, licking is “a way of letting other cats know that they care about you and that you belong to them.” That’s kind of sweet, no? We just wish it wasn’t saliva-based.
Why does my cat bite me, then lick me?
Kitties sometimes bite themselves as they groom as part of the fur-cleaning process, and when they’re grooming you that can include some biting too! Little nips are just another way of showing affection. They could also be your cat telling you that they want to play, or, conversely, that they want you to leave them alone. To figure out which it is, you have to look at the rest of their body language for clues. If their ears are up and pointed towards you, that’s a signal for playtime! If they’re flat, that means stop.
Why do cats lick you excessively?
Cats who lick you excessively may be trying to tell you something—they’re concerned about you. Dr. Ochoa says that “in the wild, cats will groom each other to help one another stay clean, so they don’t attract larger predators.”
So, what does it mean when a cat licks you a lot? Well, your kitty is demonstrating that they think of you as their kin. Just like bringing you a dead rodent because they think you’re too incompetent to hunt for yourself, your cat thinks you need help learning personal grooming techniques. Don’t expect to keep up with them, though—adult cats can spend up to 50 percent of their day grooming and are instinctively driven to clean themselves. You can try gently explaining to your cat that you appreciate their efforts, but you’re really not at risk of predation. However, now that you understand what it means when a cat licks you, you can appreciate their behavior for what it is: love! And maybe distract them with a feathery toy instead.
Purrffict article by Dani Wolpole and Chloe Nannestad for RD©