Many cat owners can give at least one example of baffling behavior from their cats, including their cat licking them. It can be a shock to suddenly feel a (very rough) tongue licking your arm, and it can even be a bit painful if your cat doesn’t want to stop! These licking behaviors are, thankfully, normal and have rather sweet intentions behind them. However, if your cat is licking you to excess, there may be a problem. Read on to discover seven reasons why your cat licks you.
The 7 Reasons Your Cat Licks You
1. They’re Bonding With You
Cats are social creatures that form close bonds with others despite often living and hunting alone. Your cat will be the same, and your cat licking you is likely a way of strengthening their bond with you through allogrooming. Allogrooming differs from regular grooming in that it is performed on other cats or people. Feral cats living in colonies groom each other to stay clean and bond, and it has been shown to decrease aggression and keep the cats calm. When your cat grooms your arm, it means that you’re one of the gang!
2. They Are Trying to Clean You Up
While allogrooming is usually the main reason your cat is licking you, they may try to groom you to clean you. As we know, cats are fastidious groomers that can spend up to 50% of their day cleaning themselves. It stands to reason that they’d groom you in this way, too, as cats often like to make sure we’re clean as members of their family.
This type of licking can also be accompanied by little nibbles or “love bites”; cats use their tiny front teeth (incisors) to nibble any particularly itchy or dirty parts of their skin or fur, and they may well do this to you, too! This nibbling is painless and is different from an actual bite.
3. They’re Marking Their Territory
Cats are territorial creatures that like to mark what they own as a way of staking a claim to other cats. While there may be no other cats in your area, your cat will still instinctively mark their important items with their chin, cheeks, and saliva to reassure themselves and refresh the scent. Licking can form a part of this scent marking,1 as your cat effectively says, “This is my person; no other cats allowed.” It can also help them make you more familiar; they share their sent with you so they can readily tell who you are.
4. They Want Your Attention
Cats can be more or less needy depending on their personality, and they’re also incredibly intelligent. For example, if your cat is licking you insistently, they may just be trying to tell you something or have figured out that licking you gets your attention. This is then reinforced by you stopping what you’re doing and addressing them as they’re licking, creating a feedback loop that tells them that if they lick you, you’ll give them the attention they want, such as petting or speaking to them. This can even be true for negative attention, such as being pushed away.
5. They’re Stressed or Anxious
Cats can groom themselves or others when anxious or stressed to cope and redirect their feelings. This can be your cat’s way of signaling that they no longer enjoy being petted and want to be left alone. This type of licking will often accompany a tense body posture and often a scratch or bite if the petting doesn’t stop.
6. You Have Something Interesting on Your Skin
If you have something on your skin, such as food or body lotion, your feline may be attracted to the scent. Then, they may even give it a little lick to sample the taste. This is not the most likely reason for your cat to be licking you, especially if they continue licking after a couple of samples. However, some cats love certain smells and tastes that can keep them licking.
7. It Feels Nice
When cats groom themselves or others, their bodies release feel-good chemicals that help them relax and feel happy. These endorphins are released in the cat’s brain and cause relaxation, happiness, and a natural “high,” which positively affects mood. Grooming is also soothing, which is why many cats that have a problem with overgrooming get into the cycle of becoming stressed and using grooming to self-soothe.
How Can I Stop My Cat Licking Me?
Cat’s tongues are rough and sandpaper-like due to backward-facing barbs called papillae that sit on the top. These barbs strip the meat from the bones of their prey, effectively remove shed hair and dirt from their coat, and spread cooling saliva over their body. The papillae can also irritate human skin and cause redness and pain if your cat is repeatedly licking in the same spot. To discourage your cat from licking you:
Should I Be Worried About My Cat’s Licking?
Overgrooming can cause many problems in cats and is a common behavior seen in stressed cats or those suffering from anxiety. If your cat is taking every opportunity they can to lick you and seems obsessive or tense when they do, you should take them to your vet for an evaluation to ensure they aren’t in any pain or unwell. Look out for signs that your cat is overgrooming, including:
Your vet can check to see if there’s any physical reason for their licking, then you can explore why they might be using licking as a displacement behavior for stress or anxiety and how you can remedy it.
If your cat enjoys licking you, the most likely reason is simply because they love you and see you as a member of their family. They treat you like one of their own, and grooming you is a way to bond and show you they trust you. On the other hand, they could be trying to keep you clean or explore an exciting scent on your skin. Some cats can lick obsessively or lick you because they’re stressed, so if you have any concerns about your cat’s licking, you should take them in to see their vet for an exam.
Featured Image Credit: Kasefoto, Shutterstock