Your cat’s tongue is one of her most valuable tools. She uses it for around-the-clock, daily grooming. Her tongue is covered in teeny, tiny barbs (aka papillae) that she uses not only to keep her fur clean but also keep her bowl spotless. Of course, her licking behavior doesn’t just stop at her fur or her bowl, she loves to lick other things like bedding, plastic, cotton, and especially… you, her pet parent. Most cat parents tend to wonder about their cat’s behavior, what she’s trying to tell them, and even what she might be thinking. Even though licking isn’t seen as a concerning act-- most people view it as a cute, affectionate gesture; sometimes your cat’s licking could mean something else entirely. Sometimes her sandpaper-like tongue hurts, and you’d rather her lick something other than your arm. Maybe you know the answer to “why do cats lick themselves?”, but when it comes to humans, you may be unsure of the reasons. Read on as we break down some pawsible reasons why your cat’s fond of licking you, and tips on what you can do to redirect those licks if they get too uncomfortable.
Cats are very affectionate pets when they want to be. One of the ways they demonstrate that affection is by licking. When a cat licks another cat, another pet, or its owner, they are creating a social bond. From early kittenhood, they were cleaned and cared for by their mothers. Mom would groom them regularly and by doing so she would show them affection, warmth, and protection. In situations where they’re feeling affectionate, cats only lick those they feel comfortable around-- those they recognize as family.
We’ve talked about grooming quite a bit already, but it needs to be said again: cats are naturally clean pets. They are so meticulous about their grooming, that in households with multiple cats they actually designate a cat as the allo-groomer which is a cat that grooms the others of the group and keeps them clean. It is pawsible that your cat is trying to let you know that she’s your allo-groomer. In cat behavior--and dare I say, culture-- cleaning and grooming is strongly linked to affection and protection, so in those instances where she establishes herself as your allo-groomer, she could communicate that she is there for you by keeping you clean just like her!
Stretching, pouncing, biting, meowing, scratching, you name it… your cat has done (or will do) all of these things for attention. It’s pawsible that licking is just your cat’s way of saying, “Look at me! Look at me!” or maybe “You haven’t looked at me for a few minutes, I miss you… pay attention to me!”
Stress and Anxiety
Sometimes, your cuddly kitten just wants to be pet or be played with, but other times, the attention-seeking could be stress or anxiety-related. Stress-related licking is more commonly done on itself, but she could just as easily be licking you out of stress, as well. Experts say that if the excessive licking continues even after the cause of the stress ends, then it would be best to take her to a veterinarian to assess any underlying health issues and an animal behaviorist to rule out any behavioral problems.
Marking Her Territory
Cats love to mark their territory in different ways: scratching, rubbing their cheek on things, and (unfortunately) spraying. Licking is just another way they lay claim to what they believe is rightfully theirs… what little catquistadores! Your cat is rubbing her little sandpaper tongue on your skin because she wants to let all the other cats out there know that you’re hers and hers only (unless you live with multple cats… in that case, you’re theirs and theirs only) How cute!
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Did you know that cats have a more bland sense of taste than we do? Despite, being good at grooming, their tongues make them the only known mammal unable to taste sweets! How sad… but of course, they don’t know that, and it won’t stop them from trying to taste any new substance they come across whether it’s something that spilled on your arm or anywhere else in your home.
Teeny, Tiny Barbs
Your cat’s tongue is truly a wonder. It keeps her fur spotless, gets hard to reach food bits out of her bowl, and feels like the soft, supple touch of sandpaper grating against your skin. The sand behind the paper, or if you will-- the teeny, tiny barbs on her tongue are called papillae and they are made of keratin, which also happens to be the same material her claws are made of. How cool! This is why her licks get to feel uncomfortable and even painful at times. But how do you get her to stop or to lick something else without changing your bond? After all, licking is very normal cat behavior and any punishment (or anything seen as punishment) won’t be understood by your kitty cat and can risk changing your dynamic. The best way to redirect your cat’s licking can be by introducing other toys for her lick such as a stuffed animal, distracting her with hugs, cuddles, and playtime, or simply walk away for a while.
Normally, licking isn’t abnormal or concerning behavior from our feline friends. But if it becomes excessive or worrisome and you find yourself posing the question "why is my cat licking me constantly?", we always recommend contacting a vet or behavioral professional. We hope we’ve helped you understand a little bit why your cat likes to lick you and how to avoid unwanted licks.