Why Do Cats Lick People? Do They Think We Smell Bad?

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.

 

Substitute Suckling

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.

 

Grooming

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 Why do Cats Lick People?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…

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30 Comments

  1. I don’t own a cat but had to read this out of curiosity! Good article. I like how you opened the door for feedback with stories too.

  2. Cats are so unique with such distinct personalities. Reading the article brought back many fine memories of feline companions throughout my life. For a time I had a strange, interspecies family that started with Josh, a fine mouser to be sure and quite a lap and love cat did I mention he liked to bathe me? Josh took no crap from anybody or anything. I was given a pit bull puppy and Josh owned that dog from the time he was a puppy until Josh died 14 years later and the pit bull was 85 pounds, he never crossed Josh. During this time I rescued a calico who was just plain weird not a licker, not a lap cat not much of a hunter, just weird I miss that pack/pride/den whatever you call a mixed species family. Thanks for bringing back fond memories.

    1. That sounds hilarious, I just love it when big dogs are under the command of little cats. I also can’t get enough of pets with people names. Josh sounds like a real character, thanks for sharing your story, Robert. 

  3. Hello, great article! Thanks for posting this! What about moving homes? I have had to change homes a few times since I have had my cat and it is really hard on her. she will start consistent cleaning herself and before you know it she has messed up her beautifully long coat. Her coat gets really thin and straggly- it is normally long thick and silky. I go through this process every time we move and I hate it for her! 🙁 Do you have any recommendations?

    1. Hi Rebakah, thanks for your question. You’ve come to the right place – I’ve moved house a total of 30 times in my life and it’s a pain in the ass for everyone, but especially cats. They don’t deal with change very well, as you’ve noticed. All the constant cleaning is no doubt due to stress, so yes, I have a couple of suggestions to help her relax. When you move, you could give her a little Rescue Remedy to help keep her calm on the journey, check out my review here. Then when you get to your new home, a Feliway diffuser might help. It’s a synthetic pheromone that only affects cats, so you don’t have to worry about other pets or people even noticing it. It helps cats feel relaxed by mimicking the facial pheromones that they rub all over the place when they’re in their own territory. There’s more information here if you’d like to check it out. I hope this helps!

  4. Lol. Cats ARE weird. But I have to admit I used to love the feel of a kitten’s tongue on my hand. Maybe we can agree that kittens are cool but cats are in fact weird, lol.

    Nicely written post. I prefer to think that any animal that licks me is showing their love and devotion for me as I do in fact have a great flavor 🙂

    1. Careful there, Eric. You’re going to get eaten alive by kittens if you don’t do something about your flavour…

  5. As soon as I started reading this I thought of my friend’s cat. Her cat was ‘special’, we actually thought maybe it had been dropped on its head as a kitten!! One of the quirky things it would do would be to come and lick you. But it wouldn’t just lick you, it would push on you with its paws (like it was trying to get milk out of you) and lick/suck on your clothes. It was almost like an obsessive compulsive trait. If you tried to stop it, it would either get mad or just keep trying to suck on you. It was generally your clothes (it would’ve probably been ten times more disgusting if it was your skin). Reading this, I realise it must’ve been taken from its mumma cat too early (the kittens were found abandoned in an empty backyard…and to my knowledge, most of the kittens from the litter grew up to be somewhat quirky cats!). Thanks for sharing!

    1. Yep, sounds like that kitty left its mother too early…kinda cute, but kinda weird at the same time. Thanks for stopping by again, Angela.

  6. I actually don’t mind it when animals lick me, I am happy they do I feel like they appreciate me or they like me. Thanks for sharing this now I really know the reason as to why cats lick humans.

  7. I also do not have a cat but I have had in the past. They are SO unique. I love how my neighbor has a few feline pets and they come and sit on the driveway and just look across the road at my Katie.( Lasso Apso) Yup! They must just be having a howling good chuckle watching her go nuts. I swear they know she is on a lead and can’t go anywhere fast. Great post and I really enjoyed it.

    1. Thanks, Merry. Definitely sounds like Katie is the laughing stock of your neighbourhood cats. I’m sure she’s hilarious to them 🙂

  8. Hello Shirley/Sparrow: I have a kitty who has licked a small portion of his stomach, until he had a bald spot. He was very consistent about his “catscaping”. It was always in the same spot. He is an orange tuxedo cat with a pink belly. We tried to see why he licked this so much, but we could not figure it out. It was clear that there was nothing wrong with the skin in the area. My guess was that it was caused by anxiety. It remained pink for a couple years, and then he just quit and the fur grew back in. He is a otherwise content and friendly cat.

    1. Ha ha catscaping. Isnt’ that weird, how a habit like that just gets dropped? I guess he learned to cope with whatever was bothering him. Strange creatures. Thanks for saying hi, Judy 🙂

  9. Great read! I’m not a cat person but my in-laws are. They have 5 cats total. So even if I am not interested in having one, I sure get exposed to them and their interesting behaviors. One cat likes to be rubbed/scratched with the bottom of your shoe! So bizarre. I was familiar with cats using their tongue for grooming. I didn’t know there were other reasons as well (anxiety, boredom, and loneliness). Very interesting. Thanks!

    1. 5 cats! What a handful, I can barely cope with one! I think mine has enough problems for 5 cats though. I’m glad your liked my article, feel free to share it with your in-laws. Thanks for your comment, Juan.

  10. I had always just sort of assumed it was for the same reasons dog licked you, which from my understanding is mostly because they like the salt from your sweat or some such reason. I hadn’t really thought about it until now! So funny, their tongues do feel just like a little high grade sandpaper. Per usual, thanks for the great article, it was very informative and a good laugh!

  11. I didn’t know anything about feline asthma but I love cats so this was worth the read. I learned a lot, like how certain breeds are more susceptible to it than others. Since this is such a unique topic I was wondering if you have a cat with asthma and if so how long was it before you found out?

    1. Hi Jazmin, I sure do have a cat with asthma. My Sparrow is about as faulty as they come, but I love him to pieces. I found out he was asthmatic when he was about 10 months old. You can read more about him on our about page. Thanks for dropping by!

  12. Hi Shirley,

    I babysat a kitten, Goose, a couple of weeks ago who would suddenly bite and scratch you and sometimes lick you. By the time he left for home I had several bites and scratch marks on my arms and ankle. I remember even my own cat, Pudding, licked me a few times but not very much.

    Now I understand why these cats did what they did. It’s their way of showing affection and bonding with you or take care of you. I’m going to remember this the next time I go visit Goose.

    I’m going to share this information with the owners of Goose. Thank you for sharing this.

    1. Sounds like Goose really loves you, Rosa. What a great name for a kitten, my compliments to Goose’s humans!

  13. I have two cats and I love them deeply. One of them is licking me all the time. Now I know why he does it. Because kitten was a bottle fed. And another cat never licks me. But she requires being stroked, only when I am in bed. Maybe you can explain this strange behavior. I have enjoyed reading your article.
    Thank you very much.

    1. Larisa, I can not explain that strange behaviour. It’s just the kind of person your cat is, you know? Enjoy it 🙂

  14. Hi there

    Very interesting read!
    I have always wondered why they tend to lick people! Cats are very clean creatures that is for sure. I always thought the licked different things to clear the scent so it’s like a territorial thing.
    And your right it does feel weird!
    There tongues are like exfoliating sponges!
    Thanks again for the information
    Regards Hailey

    1. If only we could train cats to exfoliate us, we’d save a fortune in products. Kinda gross, but think of the savings…

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