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Why Does My Cat Lick Me?

Est. read time: 8 min.

When it comes to pets that like to lick their humans, most people think of dogs before cats. But if you’re a cat parent who’s experienced the sandpaper feeling of your feline’s tongue, you’ve probably wondered: Why does my cat lick me? 

So, why do cats lick people, and what does it mean? Read on to find out.

What does it mean when a cat licks you?

First, why does a cat’s tongue feel so rough? Cats actually have tiny backward-facing barbs on their tongues to help facilitate thorough grooming practices. These barbs also help them get the most out of their meals—whether that’s an outdoor kitty dining on a fresh catch or your spoiled house cat lapping up a plate of canned cat food.

So, what does it mean when a cat licks you? The reasons are varied, but not usually worrisome.

White and grey cat with tongue sticking out - why does my cat lick me?
Photo by Miron Cristina on Unsplash

6 reasons why your cat licks you

Luckily, the reason your cat licks you is likely a positive one! We’ve explored why cats lick plastic and other strange items, many of which can pose a danger to cats if consumed. Here, let’s get into some more innocent reasons why cats may lick their pet parents.

Getting your attention

Whether it’s the feel of those tiny barbs or simply the “aww factor” of your furbaby licking you, your cat is likely aware that this behavior is a surefire way to grab your attention. Similar to how cats knock things off tables to get attention, there may even be a mischievous or manipulative element to their licking behavior. If your cat is feeling stressed or anxious, the licking may actually be a form of “acting out” in order to get you to pay attention. We’ll explore this in more detail later on. 

Showing you affection

One of the sweetest reasons why your cat licks you is to show affection. This is essentially a form of social bonding, similar to your cat cuddling you in your lap. 

You may have noticed that your cat licks you when you’re already engaged in a petting session, and wondered: Why does my cat lick me when I pet him? This could be your cat “thanking” you for the attention and showing affection in return. Pay attention to when your cat licks you while you’re petting him, as there could also be a compulsive element to the behavior. For example, do you notice your cat starting to lick you only when you scratch one certain spot, such as his lower back or tail? If this is the case, you should consider that the licking may be a sign of anxiety, reflexive of being scratched or pet in a place that your cat finds uncomfortable or ultra-sensitive.

Grooming you

Did you know that free-roaming cat colonies practice social grooming—also called allogrooming—as a means of bonding, reinforcing social hierarchies, and even redirecting pent-up aggression? 

So maybe you’ve wondered: Why does my cat groom me? Your cat “grooming” you might not be quite as complicated as the dynamics in a cat colony, but it’s nonetheless a possibility for why your cat licks you. Don’t take it as a slight, as it’s not necessarily your cat’s way of telling you you’re dirty. Instead, take it as a compliment! You’re part of a select group (whose only other member may, in fact, be your cat!) that your cat is willing to groom.

If you have more than one cat in the household, you may notice that the cat that licks you is also more likely to lick the other cat(s). In keeping with allogrooming studies, this is because the “dominant” cat in the group is more likely to give the majority of the grooming. Male cats are also more likely to initiate social grooming than females.

Additionally, kittens learn to groom themselves by watching their mom groom their littermates. Because practice makes perfect, kittens will often practice grooming each other. With this in mind, an argument could be made that this human grooming is a bonding attempt, a very sweet one.  

Maine Coon cat with tongue sticking out - why do cats lick people?
Photo by Deziree Dufresne on Unsplash

Marking you as their territory 

Cats practice territorial marking on a regular basis by activating the scent glands located in their mouths, chins, the sides of the face, and even the pads of their paws! Similar to your cat rubbing against you as a form of scent marking, he may also lick you to mark his territory. 

Do cats have a favorite person? Well, that depends entirely on the cat—but one way you might confirm this theory is if your cat licks you and not the other household members. Certain cat breeds are more prone to “singling out” a favorite person, including Russian Blues and Oriental Shorthairs.

Feeling anxious or stressed

Unfortunately, licking is sometimes a sign of anxiety or compulsive behavior in cats. Usually this behavior will manifest in the form of your cat licking himself compulsively (leading to hair loss, reddened skin, rashes, etc.)—but occasionally it’ll emerge as licking humans.

If your cat licks you often or licks himself compulsively, try to determine if something has set off this stress-induced behavior. It could be the result of interacting with other animals in the house, rowdy children, or something much more subtle. Talk to your veterinarian about your cat’s licking; they may wish to examine your cat to rule out any medical reasons for the behavior. Learn more about treating cat anxiety.

Or… you just have something yummy on your skin

Still finding yourself wondering why your cat licks you? Next time your cat licks you, take note if there’s anything, well, palatable on your skin. Did you recently prepare food? Use a particular hand lotion? Exercise? Yes, even your salty sweat might taste great to your cat. As sweat evaporates, it may leave behind a residue that is particularly perplexing to your feline friend. Whether salty or sweet, consider your skin another kitty treat.

Should you let your cat lick you? Keep in mind that certain foods and beauty products contain ingredients that are toxic to cats. It’s best to get in the habit of washing your hands after you prepare food, and don’t let your cat lick you if you’ve recently applied lotion, perfume, and other skin products.

Is it normal for my cat to lick me all the time?

There’s no set frequency for what’s “normal” when it comes to your cat licking you. Every cat is different, and many will not lick humans at all. However, if your cat is licking you all the time, it could mean something is amiss. As we covered earlier, compulsive licking is often a sign of stress and anxiety. It’s best to check with your vet if you have any concerns.

How to stop your cat from licking you

Why does it hurt when my cat licks me? 

Remember those tiny tongue barbs we talked about? After a short while, the sandpaper feel of your cat’s tongue can become irritating to the skin, if not downright painful. If you’re looking for ways to stop your cat from licking you, just keep in mind that this may be a bonding experience for your cat. Therefore, you shouldn’t push your cat away aggressively or otherwise punish your cat for licking you. Instead, gently disengage from your cat and walk away. Eventually, your cat should begin to associate this disappearing act with his licking—and hopefully cease the behavior. 

Licking is okay – but you can redirect your cat, too

Tired of all the licking? You might simply need to redirect your cat’s attention to other stimulating activities, including providing interactive cat furniture or toys such as a laser pointer.

So, what does it mean when a cat licks you? Now you know there’s a variety of reasons for this behavior, many of which are positive. If your cat’s licking becomes irritating, try to handle it with grace and let your cat down easy. If it becomes compulsive, talk to your vet. 



Longhaired cat sniffing human finger - why does my cat lick me?