Let's face it — cats aren't always the most affectionate fur-babies. They're often aloof, spending their time lazing on a cat tree or exploring the neighborhood. When they're home, they're jumping out from under the bed to attack your feet or zooming around your bedroom at 3 AM. So it can be a jarring experience if your cat starts licking you out of the blue.
You might see licking as a sign of affection, especially if you have a canine compadre. But is a cat's lick a sign of affection? And is it a good idea to let your cat lick you? And how can you stop your cat from licking you? Read on to find answers to all these questions, plus a few more!
Why do cats lick people?
Cats lick people for several reasons — let's take a closer look at 5 of the most common.
To show affection
Cats lick their pet parents for various reasons. One of the most common reasons why cats lick is to show affection. Licking is a form of grooming and is a way for cats and their kittens to bond.
Social grooming, or allogrooming, is how cats keep each other clean while reinforcing social bonds. So your cat might be licking you purely because they like you and want you to be a part of their social circle!
To mark their territory
Another reason why cats lick people is to mark their territory. Headbutting is one of the most common ways cats mark their territory. When your cat "headbutts" you, they're actually marking you with the scent glands in their head.
Licking is another way of marking their territory, which tells other felines that they're the only cat in your life.
As a result of improper weaning
Some cats, especially older kittens and adolescents, will lick because they're displaying kitten-like behaviors.
When a cat is kneading, suckling, or licking, it could be because they were weaned too early. Kittens knead and suckle their mothers while nursing to stimulate milk production. So if your adult cat is displaying these behaviors, they may be trying to seek comfort by reverting to kittenhood.
Due to stress or anxiety
Stress and anxiety are other possible reasons why cats lick people. Cats may groom themselves (and you!) excessively as a coping mechanism.
Several factors can trigger stress or anxiety in cats, like an undiagnosed medical condition or a change in environment. Visit a vet if your cat is showing signs of excessive grooming.
Because they taste something good!
Your cat could also be licking just because they taste something good. If you've recently been handling something tasty to cats, like meat or cheese, your cat might just be trying to lick up every last morsel.
Should I let my cat lick me?
Cats licking their pet parents is considered normal behavior, but is it safe for your cat to lick you? Generally, it's okay for a cat to lick you.
That said, a cat's tongue carries lots of bacteria, so you should be careful they don't lick an open wound or your face. While rare, it's possible to get an infection from your cat's saliva.
Cats also have back-facing barbs on their tongue, and their licks feel like sandpaper. Repeated licks in the same spot could actually cause you some irritation or pain. Cats don't understand this as they're covered in fur and don't feel any sensation from licking. If your cat causes you discomfort when they lick you, it's a good idea to discourage this behavior.
How do I get my cat to stop licking me?
You might want to discourage your cat from licking if they keep licking you in the same spot or you're worried about an infection. Or maybe they're just a little too affectionate! Whatever the reason, there are a few things you can try to get your cat to stop licking you.
The best way to discourage this behavior is with distractions. When your cat starts licking, get a toy and try playing with them instead.
Many cats are food motivated, so a puzzle toy that dispenses treats is a great choice. Don't give your cat treats as a distraction; they'll learn they can get treats from licking you, which will encourage the behavior.
You can also try walking or moving away from your cat when they start licking you. Only distance yourself when your cat starts licking. Ignoring the behavior should help prevent your cat from licking in the future.
There are several reasons why your kitty might be licking you, from showing affection and marking their territory to tasting something they like. See a vet if your cat is licking you or themselves excessively — this could be a sign of a health issue.
Don't fret if your cat is licking you. Licking isn't going to do you any harm, as long as your cat doesn't lick open wounds or your face.
If you want your cat to stop licking you for whatever reason, try to distract them with a toy. Or, distance yourself from your cat when they start licking.
Concerned about your cat’s licking behaviors? Chat with a veterinary expert to get answers about your pet’s quirks, health and more!
By Adam Lee-Smith
Published: 10/03/2022, edited: 10/03/2022