I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Cats are weird. Relentlessly cute with their little whiskers and their soft fluffiness, but still…weird. And cute. Even when they use their sharp, nasty bits to show us their love it’s adorable. Yes, being clawed to pieces, punctured with teeth and sanded raw with a rough little tongue is loveable.
Of course, your feline doesn’t really care that their love hurts because cats are jerks.
We know that cats use their tongues to clean themselves and each other, but why do cats lick people? If Sparrow could speak English, I’m sure he’d say “because I’m a jerk and I can”, but he’s a supreme jerk. There are actually some very valid reasons.
Maybe Your Cat Thinks You Smell
Adult cats spend roughly 50% of their waking lives grooming themselves. Vain much? This almost obsessive washing does have a purpose – in the wild cats are both predators and prey, so cleaning is their number one way of making sure there are no other scents on them that their adversaries might pick up. It’s kind of a protection mechanism.
It’s not likely that your cat thinks you’re dirty, but really who knows what cats are thinking? Cats lick themselves for a number of different reasons, as explained in this excellent article from The Daily Cat.
But it HURTS!
Toughen up, Sunshine. So a cat licking you might feel like you’re being rubbed down with a piece of sandpaper, but there are no hard feelings. Your cat isn’t trying to hurt you or remove your skin, it’s just that their tongues are covered in tiny little backwards facing barbs called papillae. These barbs help cats to remove meat from the bones of their prey and they also help to collect dirt and loose hair from the coat while grooming.
That’s all well and good for the cat, but it’s scratchy and kinda ouch. There better be a good reason for the carnage.
So Why do Cats Lick People?
In fact, there are several good reasons why your cat is tongue-combing you and none of them have to do with torture or your untimely demise. But again, who really knows what’s going on in the minds of cats?
Memories of Childhood
Who doesn’t want to relive that precious time, when everything was simple and Mum was there to take care of us? Your kitty licks you because he remembers that that’s how the mother cat took care of her babies and showed affection. Your grown up cat (or your kitten) is just sharing that nurturing love.
You. Are. MINE.
Cats are territorial; they like to own things. They’re highly scent driven – that’s how they mark their territory. When your cat licks you, he’s depositing his scent on you and leaving a message for others that clearly says “this is my human. Not yours”. Again, mother cats lick to deposit their scent on their kittens and signal to the world that they are hers, so your cat is just doing what he was taught as a baby.
Kittens who were bottle fed or weaned early tend to make up for lost suckling time by developing an oral fixation, which manifests itself in licking. It’s comforting, that suckling thing, so cats who didn’t get enough of it when they were babies are likely to grow up to be lickers.
Love and Devotion
Licking is kitty’s version of petting you. Isn’t that sweet? Cats are not aware that their scratchy little tongues hurt us, and even if they were aware, they probably wouldn’t care. It’s the same as you giving your cat his favourite scratch behind the ears, just to say “I love you”. It’s an important thing that your cat does to bond with you.
Cats like to be clean and presentable at all times; it keeps them safe and helps to maintain the quality of their coats. They’re also social groomers, meaning they like to help their family members out in the grooming department. This is great for other cats who can’t reach certain spots (like the tops of their heads) but not so necessary for those of us who shower daily. Your cat is just taking care of you and helping to keep you clean and healthy. Maybe you do smell bad.
Anxiety, Boredom or Loneliness
Sometimes cats will over-groom themselves for negative reasons. Anxiety, boredom or loneliness are all very real things for your cat, so maybe he’s trying to soothe his bad feelings with his tongue. It all comes back to owning things/people/cats, which makes your licky kitty feel safe and at home.
You Taste Good
If you’ve just smeared yourself with steak juices and not shared any with your feline family member, you deserve a good licking. How rude. Likewise, if your kitty enjoys the taste of your lotion or your freshly washed hair, he’s going to want that in his mouth. If you use chemical laden products on yourself, you might want to rethink your beauty routine – for your own sake as well as your cat’s.
What if it Gets Out of Hand?
There’s a fine line between habit and obsession – just ask anyone with a fidget spinner. If your kitty’s oral fixation is getting out of hand and you need him to back it off, there are a few things you can try.
- Get up and walk away – don’t say a word and don’t make a fuss. Just remove yourself from the situation.
- Distract the cat – if you see your kitty coming in for the lick, bring out the toys or the treats. This should take his mind away from giving you a bath.
- Address the problem – if your cat is anxious or stressed, do your best to figure out what’s causing these bad feelings and either remove the trigger or help your cat to deal with it. Products such as Rescue Remedy can help in the short term, while you’re figuring out the problem.
- Up the entertainment – your cat might simply be bored and wanting to pass the time in a different way. Make sure he has plenty of toys and an enriching environment to keep him entertained.
If all else fails and you still have an OCD licker, a visit to the vet might be in order to check for any health or psychological issues that you can’t see.
Do You Really Want to Stop it?
The most likely reasons for your cat to lick you are all very lovely. It’s your cat’s way of showing affection, taking care of you and forming a deeper bond with the human he has claimed as his own. Do you really want to stop that? Cats are picky creatures, so if you’re subject to the occasional kitty bath, maybe you should just feel honoured and say thank you. Your cat is trying to tell you something special.
Do you have a cat who likes to love you with his tongue? Share your stories in the comments below…