What Does It Mean When Your Cat Licks You?

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If you share your home with a cat, you’ve probably experienced them giving you the occasional lick. It can feel a bit strange because of that rough tongue, but we often tolerate it because it feels like receiving kisses.

Cats don’t always show their affection as readily as dogs do, so it can feel extra special. But is licking actually your cat’s way of kissing you? Or can it mean something else? Read on to learn more.

Quick Overview

01

Cats have rough tongues because they are covered with special barbs called papillae that help them to remove dirt and debris from their coats.

02

Cats lick people for several different reasons including as a way of showing affection, scent-marking, seeking or giving comfort, or sometimes because of anxiety or a medical condition.

03

It usually isn’t a problem to let your cat lick you but cats’ mouths can carry harmful bacteria so never let them lick your face or an open wound, and wash your hands after your cat has licked them.

Is It Normal For My Cat To Lick Me?

Licking is something cats do a lot of, so it can be very normal for your cat to lick you.

Cats are fastidious about keeping themselves clean and spend much of their awake time grooming, so licking is a normal behavior for a cat. Many cats will regularly lick their owners and other humans so yes, it is normal for your cat to lick you.

Also Read: Why Do Cats Lick And Clean Themselves?

A Bit About Cat Tongues

The scratchy papillae on a cat’s tongue make it feel like sandpaper.

Being licked by a cat doesn’t feel wet and slobbery like being licked by a dog. If you have ever been licked by a cat, you will have felt the rough, sandpaper-like tongue. The reason a cat’s tongue feels rough is that it is covered in hundreds of tiny barbs called papillae.

These papillae are made from keratin, which is the same material that a cat’s claws are made from—no wonder they feel rough! The papillae face backward, which helps a cat remove dirt and debris from its coat as they groom themself.

Also Read: 10 Little-Known Facts About Your Cat’s Tongue

Why Is My Cat Licking Me?

Although no one knows exactly why cats lick people, there are probably a few different reasons for this behavior.

1. Affection

Cats lick those they consider part of their social group to reinforce your bond and connection.

Affection is one of the most likely reasons that your cat licks you. Mother cats lick their kittens and bonded adult cats will often lick each other (called allogrooming), so it makes sense that your cat is showing you affection by licking you.

Allogrooming is a way that cats strengthen their bond with one another, so even though you are not a cat, your cat views you as part of their social group. If your cat starts licking you when you stroke them, they are probably enjoying your attention and encouraging the strengthening of your mutual bond.

Also Read: Why Does My Cat Lick My Hair? A Veterinarian Explains

2. Attention-Seeking

Most cat owners respond positively to being licked by their cat, so the cat repeats the behavior to get more attention from you.

Some cats might lick people as a way of getting their attention. Cats are smart and if this has worked in the past, they’ll quickly learn to do it again and again. You might not have even realized you’re doing it but if you respond to your cat’s licks by stroking them or talking to them, then you have taught them that licking is a surefire way to get your attention!

Also Read: Why Is My Cat So Desperate For Attention? Top 10 Reasons

3. Scent-Marking

Your cat might be licking you to co-mingle your scents, which reinforces your status as family.

As well as grooming, cats also lick other cats in their same social group as a way of making other cats smell more familiar. Licking transfers their saliva onto the other cat’s coat thereby also leaving their scent.

Cat’s noses are so sensitive that sniffing another cat they have licked tells them that that cat is part of their social group and can be trusted. So, when your cat licks you, she could just be marking you with her scent and identifying you as part of her family.

Also Read: What Does It Mean When A Cat Head Bumps You?

4. Instinctive Behavior

Licking is something mother cats do to their kittens, and adult cats sometimes offer this behavior to soothe another cat or human.

Cats are licked by their mothers from birth and this sign of affection is instinctive. This could be the reason why female cats show licking behaviors more frequently than male cats. Cats also sometimes lick other closely bonded cats in an attempt to soothe them if they are stressed.

Cats are very astute at picking up on their owner’s moods and you might find that your cat treats you like another cat and licks you more when you are stressed or anxious.

Also Read: Does My Cat Think I’m His Mom? The Answer Might Surprise You…

5. Comfort

When a cat licks themself it can be self-soothing behavior.

As well as licking to calm another cat, cats also sometimes lick themselves as a way to self-soothe if they are anxious or feeling unwell. If your cat is licking themself a lot, as well as you, it could be a sign that they are feeling stressed or poorly. It’s a good idea to get your cat checked by a veterinarian if you are concerned.

Also Read: Cat Love Bites: 5 Reasons Why They Do It & How To Respond

6. You Taste Nice

Your cat might lick you if you have something on your skin they find tasty.

This is a very simple explanation as to why your cat might be licking you. If you have recently handled their food, or something else tasty, then they might simply be licking you because they are enjoying the taste!

Also Read: 5 Ways To Build A Stronger Bond With Your Cat

7. Weaned Too Early

Kittens that were weaned too early might lick or suck on blankets or clothing.

Kittens that are orphaned or weaned from their mothers too early will sometimes grow up to use licking as a way of seeking the comfort that they missed out on when they were young.

These cats will also often “knead” their owners or soft objects such as blankets with their paws. This behavior is something kittens instinctively do against their mother’s teats when they are suckling as it helps to stimulate milk let-down.

Also Read: Why Do Cats Suck on Blankets? A Veterinarian Explains

8. Medical Issue

If your cat has suddenly started licking you more than usual, take them in to the vet for a health check.

Occasionally, cats might lick either you or objects excessively due to a medical condition. Your cat might lick more if they are feeling nauseous or they are in pain. If your cat has only recently started licking you, or the licking is excessive, then you should take them to the veterinarian for a checkup.

Also Read: Why Does My Cat Stick Their Tongue Out Sometimes?

Is It OK To Let My Cat Lick Me?

It’s usually harmless for your cat to lick you as long as you follow basic hygiene practices like washing your hands.

It isn’t usually a problem to let your cat lick you but you should be aware of a few potential risks. Cat’s mouths can contain harmful bacteria that could be transferred to you in their saliva when they lick you.

It’s not a good idea to let your cat lick your face and if your cat licks your hands, always wash them before eating or putting them near your mouth.

You shouldn’t let your cat lick an open wound as this could lead to an infection. Although it is very rare for cats to pass diseases to humans by licking, it’s good to be aware of the risks. Immunocompromised people are most at risk of acquiring diseases and infections so they shouldn’t allow their cat to lick them.

Also bear in mind that some lotions or ointments applied to your skin could be toxic to your cat if they lick them off. Check with your veterinarian if you are unsure.

How Can I Stop My Cat From Licking Me?

If your cat’s licking has become too much, try covering your skin with clothing or a blanket.

If you don’t want to be licked by your cat, there are a few ways you can try and discourage the behavior. Never shout or punish your cat for licking as this will only serve to make your cat anxious and scared of you. It could even make the problem worse if your cat’s licking behavior is because of anxiety. Here are a few things you can try:

  • Stop interacting with your cat if they lick you. If your cat licks you, do not respond by talking to them or petting them. If your cat is licking to seek your attention, they should soon realize that this tactic isn’t working.
  • Every time your cat interacts with you without licking you, reward with praise, treats, or further petting.
  • Try covering your skin with clothing or a blanket when you interact with your cat.
  • Provide puzzle feeders or lick-mats as a way of satisfying your cat’s urge to lick.
  • Try distracting your cat with a toy when they start to lick you.

If these suggestions don’t work, or your cat’s licking is a real problem, talk to your veterinarian who can rule out any health problems and might suggest referring you to a cat behaviorist.

Cat Licking: Final Thoughts

In most cases, a few licks from your cat are a welcome and enjoyable sign of affection.

It isn’t unusual for cats to lick people and among the many possible reasons for it, the most likely is that your cat is trying to show you some affection. If, however, your cat’s licking is excessive or problematic, speak to a veterinarian for further help and advice.

Frequently Asked Questions

Should I let my cat lick me?

If you enjoy it when your cat licks you, then there is no need to stop them. Just remember that cats’ mouths can carry harmful bacteria so always wash your hands and never let your cat lick your face or an open wound. If you are immunocompromised then you shouldn’t let your cat lick you.

Do cat licks mean kisses?

One of the most common reasons that cats lick their owners is to show affection. If your cat gives you a little lick when you are petting them, it’s probably their way of giving you a kiss.

Why is my cat licking me so much?

Licking is a common behavior in cats but if your cat is licking excessively then it could be a sign of stress or an underlying medical condition. Take your cat to the veterinarian to get them checked over if they have all of a sudden started licking you a lot.

How do you know if your cat loves you?

Cats can show affection to their owners in several different ways including purring, lying next to you or on your lap, giving you head butts, rubbing their head or body against you, or licking you.

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About Dr. Gemma Cliffin BSC BVSC MRCVS

Gemma has worked in a wide variety of roles including first opinion practice, as a night vet, and as a locum vet. She currently works in a small animal hospital in North Yorkshire. She has particular interests in feline medicine, diagnostic imaging, and pain management, as well as a strong understanding of cat behavior and nutrition.

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