Our dog companions are well-known for licking people, but what about cats? Cat parents often complain of their cats licking their fingers, their feet, or even their hair.
The sensation is generally not pleasant because of the barbs on a cat’s tongue, which make things quite rough. So why do cats lick people? It turns out that there are a variety of reasons.
Normal Licking Behavior in Cats
We first need to identify what is normal versus abnormal licking behavior for a cat. Cats are some of the most fastidious groomers out there. In fact, they are so good at it that most pet cats rarely, if ever, need a bath if they are in good health. Grooming serves a variety of functions for a cat’s health and well-being.
Health Reasons for Grooming:
- Grooming keeps the coat clean and dry.
- It spreads around natural oils from the cat’s skin, conditioning the coat.
- Grooming removes parasites. Cats are so good at this that it can be tough to find evidence of certain parasites, like fleas. We often have to look for things like flea dirt, instead of the actual fleas, to confirm their presence.
- Licking also has a cooling function. Cats do not sweat and they also do not pant like dogs to dissipate heat (cats panting can be a sign of severe distress or illness). Licking applies moisture to the coat and when that evaporates it provides a cooling effect for the cat.
Social reasons for grooming:
- One cat licking one another is called allogrooming. This is a much more common behavior among familiar cats than strangers. Seeing this behavior between cats in a household provides insight into the social relationships between them. It most commonly happens around the head, neck, and ears. Cats have been observed allogrooming other species, including dogs, horses, and rabbits, among others.
- Licking provides scent distribution between cats. Scent is a crucial way that cats identify other members of their social group. That scent distribution can also help form and strengthen social bonds between the cats or between the cat and another animal.
Even if your cat is licking you for normal reasons, it has the potential to be a nuisance or even dangerous. The scent of products used on your hair or skin could attract your cat and entice them to lick you. Ingredients in those products are not always safe for cats or could cause irritation to their gastrointestinal system.
Two common ingredients found in certain topical creams that are toxic to cats are NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications) and estrogen. It is important to be extra aware of your cat having access to potentially lick these products and prevent that from happening.
Cats sometimes lick hair and swallow it. This is also a concern because hair can accumulate in the intestinal tract and lead to urinary blockage.
Licking could be a sign of a gastrointestinal problem, which is not uncommon in cats. From the mental health perspective, licking can be an attention-seeking behavior or even a behavior performed due to anxiety or stress. Anxiety and stress are the least common reasons for licking so ruling out other possibilities is always the best place to start.
As with any behavior, when there is a sudden change or it is performed with excessive frequency or intensity, it can be an indication of something else going on. In that case, the first stop should be to your veterinarian’s office to make sure your cat is in good health.
What To Do if Your Cat Licks You
If you want to stop your cat from licking you, the best approach is to become incredibly boring. That may sound silly, but this approach works very well. The reason is that a lot of cat behaviors are inadvertently reinforced by their family members which causes the behavior to happen more often.
Pushing your cat away, petting them, and talking to them can all be rewarding to your cat. On the other hand, unpleasant punishments can also make the problem worse. Things like yelling at your cat, using a spray bottle, or any type of physical reprimand have been shown to potentially lead to aggression and should never be used.
Being very boring is typically more effective. That means completely disengaging from your cat when they start licking you. Often, the best way to do this is to get up and walk away without looking at, speaking to, or touching your cat every time that they start to lick you.
Cats are very quick learners and it should not take long before they figure out that licking you does not get them any form of attention.
Remember that licking is a variation of a normal behavior for cats. Oral behaviors such as licking, chewing, and sucking are natural way for cats to explore the world around them. Ensuring that your cat has plenty of outlets for both physical and mental activity can go a long way to reducing unwanted behaviors like licking.
Enrichment Options To Reduce Licking
The term enrichment comes up over and over again when discussing undesirable behaviors and creating the best quality of life for pet cats. There is a good reason for that—it works!
Any enrichment is good, but in the case of licking it may be most helpful to give them appropriate options to use their mouths. Food puzzle toys are very popular and there is almost no limit to both products for sale and do-it-yourself options available.
Feeding puzzles get your cat thinking and problem solving. They can get your cat moving around more, and they also allow cats a good place to focus licking or other oral behaviors.
Food puzzles aren’t the only options, though. Cats may like chewing on safe plants like cat grass. Chew sticks are available made of silver vine or other woods that cats like. Even soft chew bones designed for puppies can be enjoyable for some cats. Be sure to supervise your cat with these items to make sure they don’t try to swallow them whole or in pieces.
Frequently Asked Questions
Should I let my cat lick me?
That depends. If the licking does not bother you and it does not happen too often or for too long, it may be OK. However, it is very easy for licking to become a way of seeking attention and get out of hand. In some cases, for example when certain products are present on the skin, licking that can be dangerous for your cat. It's best if you can redirect your cat to a more desirable activity.
Is a cat licking you a sign of affection?
It can be, or at least a sign that your cat sees you as a member of their social group. It is not the only reason a cat may lick you.
Why does my cat bite me and then lick me?
This doesn’t always happen for the same reason. Licking can be an appeasement behavior, meaning that it helps defuse tension. This could be the reason that a cat licks someone after biting them. You may also see the opposite, where a cat licks first and then bites. Sometimes social interaction gets to be too much or too intense for a cat and they bite as a way to stop that. If you pet your cat while they are licking you, this is more likely to happen.