Cats are notoriously clean creatures, spending hours of their day self-grooming by licking themselves all over. Their tongues are covered in tiny hooks called papillae that grab and remove all the dirt from their coats. It is part of their instincts to use these specialized tongues to keep clean.
Sometimes, cats lick their owners too. I’ve noticed that this happens most when I pet my cat, but why? Humans tend to think licking is a sign of love and affection, but their sandpaper-like tongues feel anything but nice on our skin!
The truth is, when a cat licks your hand, it means they are usually either participating in social grooming or spreading their scent to mark their territory. These are both good signs that your cat feels comfortable and loved. So, in a way, they are showing affection.
However, licking during petting can also mean your cat is becoming overstimulated and wants you to stop petting her. They could also be feeling anxious and stressed out. In this article, I’ll explain all these reasons in more depth, plus more kitty licking advice.
Why Does My Cat Lick My Hand When I Pet Her?
If you’re wondering “What does it mean when a cat licks your hand?”, you might be surprised to find that there is more than one answer. Just like all the curious quirks of felines, there is a lot more to licking than meets the eye!
Here’s a look at all the reasons why cats might lick you when you pet them.
1. Your Cat Thinks You’re Socially Grooming
We see cats lick themselves all the time as a way of self-grooming and keeping their luscious fur coats clean. However, cats also participate in social grooming, a behavior scientifically known as “allogrooming”.
With domesticated cats, this behavior is most commonly seen between a mother and her kittens. The mother will lick her kittens’ fur coats to help keep them clean. However, social grooming also occurs in cat colonies in the wild. Therefore, if you have multiple cats all living together, you may also see them groom each other even in adulthood.
Social grooming is important for the following reasons:
- Hygiene: Just as cats use their tongues to clean themselves, social grooming is a way of helping each others’ coats stay clean, shiny, and healthy. It is one of the ways felines can show care to one another.
- Social Bonding: Cats also socially bond by social grooming. It is a very close contact activity comparable to humans hugging and kissing that you would only participate in if you feel comfortable. The more allogrooming, the closer the bonds that form.
- Establishing Social Hierarchy: When socially grooming, science has found that the more dominant cat in the group would tend to groom the less dominant group members. Therefore, this establishes social hierarchy to improve group dynamics.
One of the reasons why my cat licks me when I pet him is because he is trying to participate in allogrooming. Although am not another cat, I am a part of my cat’s family. If your cat licks you, they could be trying to clean you, show they care, and form a closer bond by licking your hand.
Moreover, when you pet your cat, it likely thinks that you are socially grooming them. The movement of your hand up and down their coats is similar to the feeling of another cat licking them. Cats often lick around the head of other cats when allogrooming, so this is even more likely of an explanation if you are scratching behind your cat’s ears or under her chin.
Therefore, when your cat licks your hand when you pet them, it is usually a good sign. Cats will only engage in this behavior and groom other cats that they like and accept. If your cat didn’t love you, they wouldn’t try to lick you.
However, don’t be dishearted if your cat never licks you when you pet them. Not all cats engage in allogrooming and they will show their love and appreciation in other ways. For example, my cat making biscuits on me as a sign of her love. Each cat is unique, so learn your kitty’s cues of affection.
2. Your Cat is Marking You As “Theirs”
Another answer to the question “Why does my cat lick my hand when I pet her?” all comes down to territorial instincts. Cats are highly territorial creatures that like the area in which they spend the majority of their time to be all theirs.
To mark out their territory, cats use marking behaviors such as spraying, scent rubbing, and scratching. When exhibiting any of these three behaviors, chemical messengers known as pheromones are deposited onto the surface of the objects that your cat is urinating, rubbing, or scratching. Each cats’ pheromones are unique to them and so mark out their territory effectively.
You’ve probably noticed territorial behavior in your cats already. They are trying to spread their scent around your home, making them feel comfortable and safe. For example, you may see them rubbing up against your doorways or – much to our dismay – scratching at the furniture or spraying.
However, it isn’t only objects that cats want to claim as theirs… they also want to spread their scent on you! For example, cats rub their teeth on you to deposit pheromones from their mouths onto you. Similarly, if you see your cat act weird when you scratch the base of their tail by raising their hindquarters in the air, it could be them trying to spread their scent.
Another way your cat can mark you as “theirs” is by licking your hand. By doing so, they are again transferring their pheromones and scent to you via their saliva. This may sound strange to humans, but it is another way cats say that they love you. Instead of thinking of it as them claiming you, see it as them marking you as family.
In fact, this is exactly what felines in the wild do to unify a cat colony. By spreading their scent onto each other, all of the cats within the group begin to take on the same scent. This lets them know who is a family member and who isn’t – cats that carry their scent are automatically accepted into the family circle.
Territorial instincts also explain why cats lick themselves when you pet them. Through petting, you will unintentionally be spreading your scent onto them. By licking themselves they are getting rid of these smells and replacing them with their own scent.
3. There is Something Tasty on Your Hand
A much simpler explanation as to why your cat licks your hand when you pet them could be that they can smell something tasty on your fingers. Perhaps you had just fed your cat and haven’t washed your hands yet, or have been cooking chicken or fish for dinner. If so, your kitty can smell these tasty scents lingering on your fingertips.
If this is the case, your cat will lick your hand to try and get a taste! Usually, they will start by sniffing your fingers before proceeding to lick them as if they were a tasty treat. Once, my cat tried to eat my fingers and nibbled on them gently before realizing I had nothing in my hand.
Another way you can tell if this is the reason for your cat’s behavior is by looking at their body posture. If they think they are getting fed or that there is food nearby, they will be more alert with their eyes open searching for the source of the smell. As soon as your cat realizes there is no real food in your hands, she will likely stop licking and settle down.
Conversely, if your kitty is socially grooming or trying to mark you as their territory, their licks will be more relaxed and less intentional. It will look more alike to how a cat grooms itself than how a cat licks food or treats before eating them.
4. Your Cat is Feeling Overstimulated
Unfortunately, there are some negative explanations as to why your cat licks your hand when you pet her. The first is that your cat is no longer enjoying being petted. The scratching of their rough tongue on your hand doesn’t feel nice and they are hoping it discourages you from continuing to stroke them.
If you don’t read this warning sign correctly, your cat may take it a step further in trying to get you away by biting your hand lightly. This can be super confusing for owners! Many cats seem to love being petted and suddenly change their mood in a flash.
If you’re wondering “Why does my cat bite me when I pet her?” think back to the situation. Did your kitty lick you before she gave you a nip? Were there other signs of your cat feeling uncomfortable, such as them thumping their tail or tensing their bodies?
For anyone that answered “yes” to the above questions, your cat is probably suffering from overstimulation. It’s not that you’ve done anything wrong, rather the part of the body you have been stroking over and over is becoming a little sensitive and causing discomfort.
Thankfully, with a little time and effort learning how cats express annoyance, you can predict when they are on the brink of overstimulation. You can then learn to stop petting precisely before this point. By doing so, both you and your cat can have much more enjoyable petting sessions.
Of course, licking is one of the easiest warning signs of overstimulation that you can watch out for. However, there are others to watch for too. Here are some examples:
- Body Language: A cat that is enjoying petting will be in a relaxed position, whereas cats getting irritated will be much tenser. Their ears will also face backward and their pupils will be wide and dilated.
- Thumping Tail: When cats become agitated, they start to thrash and thump their tails as a means of communicating that they are nearing the end of their tolerance.
- Rippling Back: If the muscle under the skin on your cat’s back becomes overstimulated from too much petting, it can start to ripple and twitch. This will make the skin move in a rolling motion down their spine.
- Vocalizations: Cats purr when you pet them as they love and enjoy how it feels. However, cats can also purr when they feel stressed as a way to calm themselves down, so when seen in combination with these other signs it can be a warning to stop petting.
It is important that you know overstimulation can be made worse by certain medical conditions. These can cause your cat pain which makes them less tolerant to touch, especially directly in painful areas. If you have noticed your cat suddenly acts more aggressive during petting, it’s a good idea to take your cat to the vet to get any medical conditions ruled out.
5. Your Cat is Feeling Anxious
Grooming is one of the ways that cats comfort themselves. Their mothers would have groomed them when they were little and adult cats still see licking as a way to calm themselves down and help them feel more secure. Therefore, your cat licking you when you pet them could be their way of coping with anxiety or stress.
Cats love habit and routine, thus get stressed extremely easily. Examples of situations that could be stressful to cats include:
- The addition of a new pet or person in your household
- Changes to their environment, such as moving house or new home decoration
- Switching to a different type of cat food or kitty litter
- Traveling to the veterinarian
- Changes in their routine or feeding schedule
- Loud or sudden unknown noises, such as fireworks
If your cat starts licking your hand when you pet them and one of the above situations applies, stress is a likely culprit. Additionally, stressed cats will show other symptoms, such as a loss of appetite, behavior changes, and increased vocalization. Are you wondering why does my cat drool when I pet him? This could be another sign they are feeling stressed out.
At this stage, this stress-related licking is nothing to worry about. Your cat is licking you to help comfort themselves and they will soon relax, especially having received cuddles from their favorite human! However, extremely anxious cats may lick compulsively, known as over-grooming.
If your cat is over-grooming, you will notice patches in their coats at the areas they lick the most. Their rough tongue repeatedly going over the same spot damages the hairs which start to fall out. Depending on how excessively they groom, the skin may become red and irritated. If you notice bald patches in your cat’s coat or suspect they are over-grooming, you’ll want to take your cat to the vet.
MY FINAL THOUGHTS
Overall, you shouldn’t worry next time your cat licks you when you pet her. It is normal behavior and usually a good sign. In most cases, your cat is trying to form a close bond with you and label you as part of the family. In other words, she loves you!
However, as licking can also be a sign of overstimulation or anxiety, be sure to watch out for the additional symptoms I have listed above. This will help you determine whether or not her licking behavior is something to worry about.
If not, sit back and relax! Your cat’s sandpaper tongue may not feel entirely pleasant rubbing across the surface of your skin, but think of it as a way to form a tighter bond and you’ll soon learn to love this adorable behavior!