Does your feline companion lick you, and are you wondering why? Particularly since a cat’s tongue can feel a bit rough, it’s a behavior that’s hard to ignore! In general, there are two major reasons a cat will lick human family members:
Some cats lick for social affiliation and affection
If you have more than one cat, or have observed cats together, you’ll notice that cats will lick other cats in their social group. Known as “allogrooming,” many species of animals will lick and groom each other to strengthen their social bonds. It also helps to reduce conflict within the group1. Since cats live with you, as part of your social group, it’s natural for them to engage in allogrooming to demonstrate affiliative behavior. If your cats are generally healthy and behaving normally, licking is a positive indicator that they like you and want to be closer.
Cats will also lick people if they find the taste enjoyable. The natural ingredients found in human perspiration can be appetizing for some cats. Cats can also be attracted to items you put on your skin, such as medical ointments and skin lotion. This can actually be a concern if you use certain topical hormone-treatments which lead to negative hormonal changes in cats and dogs2. According to the pet poison helpline, topical medications that are toxic to cats include corticosteroids, Calcipotriene for the treatment of psoriasis and creams containing zinc (i.e diaper rash creams). If you regularly use a topical medication, consult with your veterinarian to make sure there is no risk to your pets.
Some cats lick to alleviate anxiety
Some cats will lick humans because they feel anxious and/or fearful. Licking their humans is a way to calm themselves3, somewhat like how humans will chew their nails when they feel anxious. This behavior is also observed in cats that were too young to be taken away from their mothers. These cats develop an oral fixation, which is a condition that can also be found in human babies. If you have a cat that is excessively licking you, and is showing fearful or stressed behavior, contact a feline behavior professional. Katenna Jones, Associated Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, says, “Often the behaviors I’m called for are actually symptoms of an underlying issue. In this case, if I determine stress is the issue, licking is the symptom – not the issue. I would focus more on the sources of stress and on implementing a stress reduction program. By observing and measuring the frequency of licking, the consultant and client can determine the success of the program.”
What if my cat is licking too much?
Many people find their cats licking unpleasant eventually, as a cat’s tongue can feel very rough on skin. There’s actually a biological reason for this. A cat’s tongue effectively serves as a brush to remove loose hair, mats, dirt and fleas. Small spines made of keratin called papillae are spread out on the surface of a cat’s tongue in a backwards direction. These spines act as the equivalent of a hair brush or comb for a person4. It’s no wonder that excessive licking from a friendly cat can become annoying and uncomfortable. If your cat is not stressed and is simply licking you out of affection, you can reduce the behavior with some positive redirection.
To deter a cat from this behavior, find some things that your cat really enjoys and do those instead to distract him from licking. For example:
- Pull out a brush and groom your cat and include some gentle massage. Most cats find this very pleasurable and it’s hard for them to lick and be pampered at the same time.
- Engage your cat with some toys. Keep a toy handy wherever you like to sit, or lie in bed, and when your cat starts to lick, pull the toy out and encourage your cat to play. “Fish pole” type wand toys are great for this as you can swish it around and really get your cat going.
- Make sure your cat has other opportunities for mental and physical enrichment, even when you’re not cuddling. Cat trees, window perches, food-stuffed puzzle toys and small cat toys are all excellent options. If you enjoy training, you can also engage your cat in some clicker training to learn simple tricks.
Hopefully, if you find your cat licking you, it’s a sign of affection and you can take these simple steps to alleviate the behavior and spend enjoyable time with your feline friend. If you find your cat licking you excessively out of the blue, or the licking is combined with nervous, fearful body language and behavior, consult your veterinarian and a qualified behavior professional to help you improve your cat’s quality of life. If you’re looking for a vet, the American Association of Feline Practitioners list veterinarians who specialize in cats with “Cat Friendly Practices®.” For behavior help, visit the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (www.dacvb.org/), the Animal Behavior Society (www.animalbehaviorsociety.org/), and the IAABC (https://iaabc.org) to find a professional near you who specializes in feline behavior.
If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian – they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.
- Van den Bos, R. (1998). The function of allogrooming in domestic cats (Felis silvestris catus); a study in a group of cats living in confinement. Journal of Ethology, 16(1), pp 1-13 – from page 2: “Still, allogrooming,
- Lau, Edie. “Hormone Replacement Skin Products Affect Users' Pets, Confound Veterinarians.” Latest News - VIN, VIN News Service, 10 June 2010, news.vin.com/VINNews.aspx?articleId=15950&pid=210.
- Johnson-Bennett, Pam. “Why Does My Cat Lick Me So Much?” Cat Behavior Associates, www.catbehaviorassociates.com/why-does-my-cat-lick-me-so-much/.
- Brulliard, Karin. “A Cat’s Sandpapery Tongue Is Actually a Magical Detangling Hairbrush.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 29 Nov. 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/news/animalia/wp/2016/11/29/a-cats-sandpapery-ton....