When your cat licks you, two thoughts probably run through your head. First, you think, “Awww, how sweet!” But once the feeling of sandpaper on skin really sinks in, your reaction is more like, “Oucchhhh!” A cat’s tongue is an incredible example of the purposefulness of feline anatomy. Every adorably pink cat tongue is coated with backward-facing barbs that help cats hold on to prey, keep their fur clean, and assist with several other essential purposes. Cat tongues are fascinating once you get in to the science behind it all, and some cats use their tongues while interacting with their favorite humans. If your cat licks you, they’re doing it for a reason.
Here are a few of the most common reasons why cats lick people…
To Strengthen a Social Bond
If you ever spend time around multiple cats, you could learn a lot about feline psychology and behavior simply through observation. When two cats get along, you can often see them licking each other. This behavior helps cement their friendship through general interaction and a shared scent. For cats, scent is extremely important. They use it for both identification and communication. So when a cat licks another cat (or a human), they create a unique scent that represents their friendship. When your cat licks you, they could be doing it as a way to strengthen your bond and show affection.
To Get Your Attention
Not every cat is a glutton for human attention, but there are definitely some clingy kitties out there. Some cats lick people when they’re in the mood for pets or playtime. If you’re looking at your phone or doing something else that isn’t directly interacting with your cat, don’t be surprised if you get a rough reminder that your cat wants your undivided attention. If your feline is feeling particularly feisty, those licks might even turn into playful bites.
You’ll be able to tell if your cat is licking you as a way to demand attention if she seems particularly pleased after you stop what you’re doing to scratch her ear or toss a catnip mouse.
To Work Through Anxiety
Licking is often associated with positive feelings, but that isn’t always the case. Obsessive licking can also be a sign that a cat is feeling especially anxious. Licking is considered a soothing behavior that cats sometimes use to make themselves feel better.
Most of the time, cats lick themselves in these situations. Sometimes they lick themselves so much they end up with bald patches in their fur. But if you’re in the middle of spending time with your cat while they’re feeling anxious, they might lick you instead. It’s an attempt at self-soothing, but it doesn’t always do much for a cat’s peace of mind. If you think your cat licks you out of stress, it’s important to talk to a vet or a feline behaviorist.
To Taste You
Cats learn quickly that humans often taste good. If you recently dined on some tasty finger food, your cat will smell the food on your skin. They might lick your fingers to get a taste of whatever you were eating. If you just came home from a workout, your cat might also lick your skin because they like the taste of salty sweat. It sounds gross, but cats think your sweaty skin is a flavorful treat. The same can happen if you apply a scented lotion or soap.
When the Licking Gets to be Too Much
Having your cat lick you can be cute, but if you’d rather save your skin from your cat’s sandpaper tongue, there are ways to discourage the behavior. Never scold your cat for this natural behavior, but you can redirect their attention. So if they’re licking your arm, move out of their reach and offer them something else to do. If they’re licking your feet, put on socks and offer a head scratch instead.
When your cat licks you, there’s most likely nothing to worry about. The only reason you should be concerned is if it turns into an obsessive habit associated with stress or anxiety. In that case, it’s best to talk with a vet on how to help your cat feel better.