My cat never licks me. But my friends’ cats act like they are grooming their humans as one of their own. It is perfectly understandable to want to know why cats do this. Why do cats lick people?
We are spending so much time with our cats and understanding our feline companion’s behavior is key to a healthy relationship between us and our cats. In this article, we look at the reason behind this behavior and what it means.
Why Do Cats Lick?
Before I get into why your cat might be licking you, I want to talk about why cats lick in general. I am sure you have noticed that cats’ tongues are very weird. While dog tongues are smooth like humans, cats’ tongues are rough and feel like sandpaper. This is because their tongues are covered in papillae, of keratin. These papillae are made of the same material as their claws.
These specialized tongues allow them to drink water and groom themselves. They also use licking as a socially bonding behavior, while excessive licking can be a sign of illness or stress. Let’s take a closer look at each of these in more detail.
The main reason that cats lick is to self-groom. Cats are notoriously clean creatures, and their specialized tongues easily remove all dirt and debris from their fur coats. This leaves them looking shiny, smooth, and healthy.
If for some reason her tongue does not manage to clean her fur, she will use her teeth and nibble gently to get rid of any residue or matted fur. This hypnotic and calm self-grooming act is called preening.
A cat’s love for being clean stems back to kittenhood. The mother bites and licks to open the placenta and helps the baby to breathe for the first time. She licks the kitten till she is no longer wet from amniotic fluid. The mother has to lick her kittens every few hours to help them urinate and defecate till the third week, which is when kittens can start to do these things themselves.
While licking is primarily an act for hygiene maintenance of kittens, it also reinforces the bond between the mother and her offspring. This bonding behavior sticks with them even when they become adults, even if they are with other adult cats. For example, if you introduce two cats and they get used to each other, you will witness them starting to groom one another as a sign of affection between them.
3. Illness & Stress
In some cases, you might witness that some cats lick themselves excessively. This is not normal behavior; it is a sign of a high level of stress or anxiety. It is a way to release their accumulated tension. This can lead to bald spots or rashes, a condition known as psychogenic alopecia.
You should try to find the cause of the stress to see if it is something you can eliminate in order to improve their well-being. The cause of the stress can be many things such as a new member joining the household, loud noises, unfamiliar smells, or a new animal.
If you cannot find the cause and your cat keeps excessively grooming, I would advise you to take your furry companion to the vet to see if there is a physiological problem that needs to be treated.
Why Does My Cat Lick Me?
So, we know why cats lick in general – it is a way of grooming, bonding, or dealing with stress – but why do cats lick people? As it turns out, there are several reasons why. Here we take a look at all the possible explanations in a little more detail.
1. A Sign of Affection
If your cat licks you, take it as a compliment! They are likely showing you care and affection, just as their mother showed to them when they were young kittens.
First, we need to understand one thing: Dogs see you as their owner and cats see you –if they want to– as their pack member. They see you as a big (size-wise) cat. If they like you, they will show you affection as their mother showed them. This includes making sure that you’re clean and healthy and participating in bonding activities with you.
This affection can come in many different forms and licking you is just one of them. So, if your cat doesn’t lick you, don’t feel disheartened! Some other ways that cats show that they care include:
- Kneading or “making biscuits” on you
- Headbutting you and rubbing its face on you
- Bringing you “gifts” of dead or alive mice, birds, lizards, or insects
- Purring and acting loving towards you
2. Marking You as Family
Cats are territorial animals. Many people wrongly assume that marking territory is solely about making a designated area that is theirs. However, cats also like to mark objects to claim ownership of them. This includes marking people as their family members.
Now, I get that this might sound a little strange. Yet it is a true sign of love. In the wild, cats of the same pack will lick each other so that they all have the same scent. This family scent helps them to know who is in their pack and one of their allies. By marking you, your kitty is marking you as her family and making sure all the other cats know you belong to them.
But how does licking signal to other cats that you are taken? Well, the saliva of all cats contains chemicals called pheromones. Humans cannot smell these pheromones, but other cats can. Whenever your cat licks you it transfers these scent molecules onto your skin. Other cats will then be able to smell this pheromonal scent on you.
Licking is not the only way that cats can transfer their pheromones onto you. Some other ways that cats might mark you as family include:
- Rubbing against your legs
- Headbutting you and rubbing their face on you
- Making biscuits on your knee
You can observe this behavior a lot more if you pet another animal and then come home and let your cat smell you. Although this type of behavior is perfectly normal, it can cause territorial problems at home if you have more than one cat, so be careful with this.
3. They’re Grooming You
One of the simpler answers to the question is that your cat is trying to groom you. They spend several hours every day grooming themselves because cats love being clean. It’s not just themselves that they like clean either – cats like to have an entirely clean environment. Think about it, a dirty litter box can upset a cat for days!
Therefore, there is a good chance that your cat wants you to be cleaner than you are. That isn’t to say you’re currently dirty at all; a cat’s perception of cleanliness really is a whole new level.
By licking you, they think they’re helping with the situation. Of course, they’re not helping at all. While their specialized tongues are effective in cleaning their fur coats, they aren’t quite as successful at cleaning human skin. Still, it’s nice to know that your cat is trying to help as best it can.
4. You Taste Good
Cats have an extremely good sense of smell. In fact, it is 14 times as strong as humans. This means that they can easily detect even the faintest smells that we humans are unable to sense. If there is anything on your hands that smells remotely tasty, your cat could be licking you to try and eat it.
Have you just served your cat dinner? Or have you just been cooking your evening meal? Even if you have washed your hands, your kitty might still be able to smell the lingering delicious scents. Sweat after exercise also has a salty scent that your cat might want to taste.
5. They’re Feeling Stressed
As we have already discussed, cats overgroom when they are stressed. Vets and scientists aren’t exactly sure why, but it is thought to feel comforting to them thanks to the link licking has to kittenhood. Grooming excessively takes cats back to a time when they were happy and carefree. In other words, it is a coping mechanism for when adult life gets hard.
While stressed cats overgroom themselves, they might also lick their owners when feeling overwhelmed. You should easily be able to tell if this is the reason for your cat’s behavior as you’ll spot other signs and symptoms of stress. This includes things like:
- Vomiting and/or diarrhea
- Being withdrawn and hiding more than usual
- A reduction or increase in appetite
- Excessive scratching and other destructive behaviors
- Increased vocalizations
- Being hesitant to use the litter box
- Acting more clingy and needy than usual
6. To Get Your Attention
There is also a chance that your cat is licking you to get your attention. Our cats are master manipulators and know exactly how to get us under their thumb. Some cats meow to get attention, others will flop down on the floor in front of you, and others will lick, lick, lick!
If you think your cat is after attention, try and work out exactly what it is that they want. Do they need feeding? Is their litter tray dirty? Have you played with them yet today? Or perhaps they just want some love and affection from their favorite human being!
7. Nursing on their Human
Another reason for excessive licking can be oral fixation which develops in some cats who were orphaned or weaned prematurely. If you have adopted a kitten younger than 8 weeks and it keeps licking you, this could be why.
Because they couldn’t suckle their mom as kittens, licking can be a substitute for that experience. They are essentially “nursing” on their human (just without receiving any milk in the process). This is harmless behavior and is just making up for the lack of the mother being present. Many cats will grow out of this behavior as they get older, whereas others will lick and suckle for life.
If you have a senior cat that has taken a liking to licking you all of a sudden, you might want to head to the vet because this could be a sign of hyperthyroidism. For those of you that don’t already know, hyperthyroidism is a hormonal disorder where too much of the thyroid hormone is produced. This hormone plays an important role in metabolism, and too much of it causes your cat’s metabolism to speed up.
This sudden increase in metabolism manifests in many different ways, including the following symptoms:
- Unexpected weight loss
- Muscle wasting in the hindquarters
- Difficulty jumping due to muscle weakness
- An increased and excessive appetite
- Excessive thirst and urination
- More playful and restless behavior
Alongside these physiological symptoms, cats with hyperthyroidism often feel stressed, agitated, and anxious. As we’ve already covered, stress leads to overgrooming as cats rely on this as a coping mechanism. Therefore, hyperthyroidism – or any sickness or illness that causes your cat stress – could cause them to lick you more than usual.
Why Does My Cat Lick Me and Then Bite Me?
We are all familiar with this scenario: One moment your cat is licking you so peacefully that you are recording it to send to some friends to show how adorable she is. And then, suddenly, she bites you!
There is no one simple answer to this situation that would explain everything and stop them from doing it. So, here we look at all the possible explanations in a little more detail. If you want further information on different causes of biting, you may refer to my earlier article called why does my cat bite me?
1. Your Cat is Preening You
When cats groom themselves, they will sometimes use their teeth to help remove persistent bits of dirt that won’t come off using their tongues alone. This is just part of their normal preening routine and ensures they’re as clean as can be.
As mentioned, one of the reasons why cats lick us is to groom us. In these intimate grooming sessions, there is a possibility that your cat might bite you while she licks you. This is due to using her teeth because she cannot remove the “dirt”. She is just trying to make sure she does the most thorough job possible.
Overstimulation – also known as petting-induced aggression – is where a petting session goes from being pleasurable to painful. This might sound a little strange, but most cats will suffer from overstimulation from time to time. It usually happens when we stroke our cats too much in one sitting. Rubbing over the same spot, again and again, gets irritating and borderline uncomfortable for your furry friend.
Unfortunately, there is no easy way for our cats to communicate this. They can’t tell us to stop as it is all getting a little too much. Instead, cats will give their owners a little warning nip with their teeth. They are not intending to hurt you and will never draw blood. It is just their way of saying they’ve had enough. This often follows licking as your cat prepares to make the bite.
It is a good idea to watch for the early signs of overstimulation so you can stop petting your cat before they bite you. Below are some of the things you can look out for:
- Your cat’s tail begins to twitch and thump
- Skin ripples on your cat’s back as you stroke her
- She turns her head towards your hand and licks you
- Your cat’s ears are alert or flattened
- You notice growling noises or other strange vocalizations
- Her pupils are wide and dilated
When you notice any of these symptoms, especially if you notice any in combination, it is important you stop petting immediately. Let your cat move away from you. And if they seem very agitated then stand up slowly and walk away from your cat.
3. They’re Playing
A cat’s version of playing mimics hunting. They will run and pounce at their toys as if they were live pray. While it is normal and healthy for cats to play in this way, you need to ensure young cats know what they are allowed to play with. If your cat licks and playfully bites you, they could think your fingers are something to play with.
For this reason, you should never play with your cat using your hands and feet. This will make them think they are toys that she can bite and play with. Instead, always use toys when you are having playtime with your cat. Whenever your cat does go for your fingers, redirect their attention to a toy instead.
If your cat is a kitten, then it will be easier to teach them that biting is not okay. You need to be consistent and when she bites you, you should stop showing affection immediately and react vocally by saying “no!”. This is how they will understand that biting is not something you approve and in order to have your attention, they have to change this behavior. You also need to vocally state that you do not approve of this and that it hurts you.
If you have an adult cat, you should do the same, but it might take longer for them to accept and adapt. Do not yell at them, never ever hit them. You need to be patient. Consistency is very essential.
Why Does it Hurt When My Cat Licks Me?
Our furry friends never mean to hurt us when they lick us. Usually, they’re trying to show affection, mark us a family, or help to look after us by keeping us clean. However, it can sometimes hurt when your cat licks you. Although my cat doesn’t lick me, my friend’s cat did once and I’m glad I don’t have to go through it!
The reason a cat licking us feels uncomfortable is because of their specialized tongues covered in papillae. These tiny hooks make the tongue feel rough to the touch. They don’t hurt your cat when they self-groom as these hooks go between the hairs, much like brushing your hair with a comb. Yet, we humans don’t have thick coats of hair. The papillae brushing directly on our skin, again and again, can be really painful.
It is for this reason that cats’ tongues are compared to sandpaper. And would you rub your body in sandpaper? I certainly wouldn’t! It’s bound to hurt, so while our cat’s tongues are perfect for them, us?… Not so much.
How to Stop My Cat Licking Me?
Licking isn’t usually anything to worry about. As long as your cat isn’t overgrooming and you don’t notice any other symptoms of stress or illness, you can pretty much relax.
However, because it hurts when cats lick us, many owners wish their furry friends would stop. A cat’s intention might be good, but they’re actually being rather annoying. You need to do this carefully though. After all, your cat thinks it’s doing a nice thing. The last thing you want is to make them feel as if their efforts and love are unappreciated.
Below are just some ways that you can try and stop your cat from licking you without making them feel unwanted:
1. Play with Your Cat
The best way to stop your cat from licking you is by distracting them with something else. Toys and playtime work wonders. Because you are still making an effort with your cat and interacting with them, they won’t feel unwanted. Besides, exercise is good for their mental and physical health.
Next time your cat licks you, reach for one of their favorite toys and start playing with them. They will soon get distracted and stop – their toys are going to be much more exciting than your hands and fingers.
2. Distract with Treats
Another distraction tactic that many owners swear by is food. This is a great solution for cats that aren’t full of energy and would rather have a tasty treat than a big ol’ play session.
However, if you are distracting your cat with treats, take care you don’t overfeed them. Over time, it could cause them to gain weight and become obese. This is a risk factor for many health issues. It is always recommended to try and get your cat’s attention with toys before resorting to food.
3. Destress Your Kitty
As we have mentioned already, cats that are stressed and anxious lick more than those that are happy and stress-free. Therefore, you can also make a conscious effort to destress your cat. This is a great solution as it could cause your cat to stop licking you entirely, but also means they’ll be happier and mentally healthy as well.
One way you can help create a good home environment is through play. Healthy play will boost your cat’s mood and make them feel more at ease. If you’re using play as a distraction tactic, this carries multiple benefits. Other ways you can create a calming home environment is to:
- Use pheromone products to calm your cat
- Ensure your cat has somewhere to hide if they need to escape
- Introduce any changes to your cat’s environment slowly
- Show your cat plenty of love and affection
- Provide entertainment for your cat while you’re not home
- Give your kitty a cat tree, scratching post, and other essentials
4. Be Patient
Most importantly, be patient with your cat. Remember that they are not trying to hurt you. If anything, they’re doing the opposite and are trying to show that they care. Training your cat to learn that this behavior is not welcome will take a little time. Be gentle, be patient, and never yell or get angry. Over time, your cat will learn to show affection in other ways.
13 Ways Your Cat Shows You Love
While we cannot read the minds of our cats, we can try to read their behaviors and learn to understand how they say, ‘I love you’. It gets easier after spending a bit of time with them. Here are some things cats do that show they feel affectionate towards you:
1. Showing Their Belly
Like most animals, cats do not show their stomachs to just anyone.
It is the most vulnerable part of their body. You might have already noticed that stray cats are always very alert even when they look like they are sleeping.
Their paws are tucked underneath, and they never show their belly.
If your cat rolls over on her back to show you her fuzzy belly, this is an indication that she feels comfortable around you. She feels loved and protected by you, rendering herself defenseless.
2. Following You Around
This is a type of behavior that you would expect from your dog but when your cat does it, it means she cannot get enough of your companionship.
You can notice this especially if it is not close to her feeding time. She will follow you room to room, even jump onto furniture to get closer to you. When you observe this, you can be sure that she loves your company. She might even come to fetch you if you stay in bed too long without her or if you close the door to the bathroom and try to have some alone time.
If you close your bedroom door at night and don’t let her in, she will repeatedly scratch the door or meow constantly until you give up, open the door and let her in. It’s all out of love! Well, maybe a little bit out of nosiness as well.
This behavior may seem very odd, but it shows that your cat absolutely loves you and cares about you.
Cats have glands that are hidden in their cheeks and heads and various other parts of their bodies. When she even lightly brushes against you, she can still mark you with her scent to declare you as her property or her family. However, you would like to believe. For kittens, this familiar scent is a great comfort and it helps them to calm down.
4. Rubbing Against Your Legs
Sometimes, when you come home after a long workday feeling very tired and your cat runs through the door to greet you, rubs herself against your legs and she immediately makes you feel like she is happy to see you.
You are right to feel this because that is how she shows her affection. That, and she is putting her scent on you as a way of claiming you as her own. Just like when she head-butts you. It helps you develop a deeper bond with your cat to allow her to do it.
5. Sitting on You
Cats are known for not being interested in physical contact but once you meet a friendly cat, you will see that quite a bit of them like to be in physical contact and sit on your lap.
It is due to both showing affection and using your body heat in cold weather. But you may also see some very stubborn cats who will follow you around and try to sit on your lap or lean on your body even when it is too hot. Then you can be sure that she is doing it to be close to you and to feel your presence.
This happens a lot more if you are living alone with your cat. It gets easier for them to bond with you and get used to you.
Kneading is when your cat uses her paws to push in and out against a surface like your lap, or arm. Just like making biscuits.
This is one of the things you can be sure that means your cat is saying “I love you” to you.
If your cat comes up to your lap and starts kneading while you pet her, she is returning the fondness. Unluckily, this show of affection can be very painful. Because the happier she gets, the harder she will dig in with her sharp nails.
Regular nail trimming can be very helpful in this situation. If you don’t know how to do it, ask your vet to do it for you during her regular check-ups.
To ease the painfully sharp nails, you can also use a soft blanket as a barrier between her and your body. It helps a ton.
7. Sleeping on You
You might have a king-size bed and a huge sofa, but your cat will still somehow find sitting on your lap or sleeping on your chest a lot more comfortable.
I don’t know who wouldn’t like this scenario but in case you are wondering why she does this; she does it because she wants to be close to you.
8. Responding to Your Call
When you have a guest over and they want to get your cat’s attention by calling her name, your cat can act like she is deaf.
But, when you call her, she immediately responds. Well, this should make you proud, shouldn’t it?
You might have heard your cat purr many times on many different occasions before, but you may not have realized that this is a loving purr.
Cats’ purr can mean a variety of things. It can be from delight, an expression of concern or even to ease their pain. It can range from a soft and subtle to incredibly loud truck-like purr. You can be sure that she is doing it to show her affection and contentment.
Also meowing. Cats don’t meow to other cats to communicate, they do it only to humans. Your cat is talking to YOU. If you pay attention, you can notice the difference between meows when she tries to tell you what she wants.
10. Approaching You With Their Tail Pointing Straight-up
The tail of a cat works as a barometer into how your cat feels about you or her habitat.
You can read all her emotions from her tail. All you have to do is pay attention.
It affects your cat’s perceptions about you. Another way to understand a cat’s feelings is when you see her tail straight up while she gently flickers the tip of her tail. The tail’s shape usually looks like a candy cane, but it slightly quivers and well, it is furry.
They also say that this tail curve “is sometimes called the happy tail dance.” You can read a lot of emotions from her tail such as whether she is in a good mood or on edge, scared or content.
Some people say that this is one of the reasons why cats cannot get along with dogs.
Dogs wag their tails super-fast when they are happy, and it gets faster and faster as their excitement increases whereas cats wag their tails fast when they are angry or annoyed.
11. Bringing You Presents
Your cat might not bring you toys to play with but there is a bigger chance that she may bring you a dead animal or worse, animals. It depends on how “lucky” you are.
You might find this very weird, but this is also another way of your cat showing you that she likes you and she cares about you. This is how she likes to show her love towards you.
If your cat loves you and if she is a good hunter, she will bring a lot of gifts to you. Natural born hunter cats will catch various things from toys to birds, socks to mice and unfortunately, they will share the prize with the ones they cherish.
There may also be instances where you might see your cat playing with a dead mouse (or one that wishes to be dead!) and after that, the mouse is nowhere to be seen.
In a way, you might think that this is better because you don’t have to clean up after her but you might also want to reconsider your relationship with your cat since she doesn’t want to share this gift with you.
However, cats may also bring you dead animals because they think you are a bad hunter. If they bring you an alive pray, then it means they are trying to teach you how to hunt. If it is dead, then they think you are a very, very bad hunter and you are not yet capable of killing prey.
So, they bring you dead one for you to not starve to death. Come to think of it, it is a very nice gesture.
12. Making Eye Contact With You/Slow Blink
It is a very hard thing to see a stray cat blink or make long eye contact with you.
If you try to make eye contact for a long time it makes them feel agitated and threatened. They usually get really uncomfortable and sometimes they leave. This happens when the cat is tameless. It is a whole other deal with your cat.
If your cat is staring at you and slowly blinking, she is showing you that she trusts you and the slow blink is the equivalent of being kissed by her.
This might be the easiest body language for humans to understand. Just watch her eyes and see if she will open her eyes wide and then slowly blink to tell you she loves and trusts you. This is referred to as a ‘kitty kiss’. Cats only make eye contact with the people they like.
When there are other cats around, you may see cats slow blinking a lot. This is a way for them to let other cats know that everything is cool.
13. Tolerating the Affection
You might realize that your cat doesn’t like it when you kiss her, but she tolerates it. She might duck, she might give you grumpy looks but if she doesn’t run away, you can consider this as a victory.
In some cases, they like to touch you before you try to pet them! There are a ton of videos on the internet where cats are tapping their human’s shoulder and demanding to get some affection.
Can Cats Be Obsessed With Their Owners?
Your cat getting overly attached to you can happen from the first time you two meet, or you might have a bad start but gradually she learns to trust you. It all depends on how you met.
If you rescued a cat when she was in bad shape, you will have a quite different bond from a cat adopted from a shelter or from someone that treated her well. If she was a stray, wounded or scared, it might and probably will take you a long time to make her truly trust you.
Because unfortunately, most people are not nice towards stray animals. They think strays are dirty disease carriers and will attack them for no reason. All these negative behaviors cause the cat trauma and it becomes very hard for her to trust people and you end up trying to change her perspective towards people. She will probably be terrified of noises and sudden movements.
If you are patient and gentle you will be rewarded with gratitude. She will not trust other people as much as she trusts you. This might look like she is obsessed with you. After all, cats are not famous for their trusting abilities.
There are some possible explanations for why cats get attached to only one person. It could be the person’s approach, voice, smell or simply how that person treats her.
When cats are with their trusted human, they get chattier and playful. But when they are with strangers, they are much less chatty, and you can see that all they want is to leave the premises immediately.
This type of behavior can be seen in young children when they are with adults they are not acquainted with.
So, knowing that cats are not very into trusting people and seeing that she cannot get enough of you is a priceless and very fulfilling experience.
Excellent article. Adopted a 7 week Tom cat who had been abandoned with her parents and siblings by a cruel woman who dumped them in boxes outside of a rescue centre. He is so affectionate, licks me a lot, follows me everywhere and sleeps on a pillow next to mine. Love him so much.
My cat is 2 and we are getting a 7-week-old kitten hope she likes it she is so loving she falls asleep with me and follows me and my family everywhere.
Natasha Dexter says
Have two lovely white male cats from kittens, one greets me every morning or after he hasn’t seen me for a while by licking my feet. If I stroke him whilst in his cat tower, he licks my hand, often putting his paw on top of my hand whilst he does so – I just love it. They both always choose to come lay by my legs on the sofa – love my two boys! And so glad they have affection for me.