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Is my cat kissing me or grooming me?

A cat’s tongue is one of its greatest assets. With tongues covered in “papillae,” cats use these curved spines to groom themselves – spending anywhere from 30% to 50% of their day keeping their fur clean. So with all of that time spent on hygiene, many cat parents wonder: “Why does my cat lick me?”

6 possible reasons why your cat licks you

Although it may be impossible to say for sure, researchers, veterinarians, and cat behavior experts have suggested a number of reasons why your cat may lick you every now and again. Let’s dig in…

1. To show affection

For cats, licking is not only used as a grooming mechanism, but also to show affection. By licking you, other cats, or even other pets, your cat is creating a social bond. Part of this behavior may stem from kittenhood when your cat’s mother licked to groom them, as well as to show care and affection. Many cats carry this behavior into their adult lives, licking their humans to pass along the same sentiment.

Many cats carry this behavior into their adult lives, licking their owners to pass along the same sentiment.

2. To “mark their territory”

Although there are a number of ways that cats “mark their territory,” including cheek rubbing, scratching (and unfortunately, spraying) – licking is another behavior that cats might use to claim something as their own.

In this case, if your cat is licking you, they’re trying to ensure that other cats or animals know who you belong to – them!

3. To groom you

Even though your cat might not realize that licking you isn’t actually helping you “get clean,” this behavior is completely natural to them. As we mentioned earlier, mother cats groom their kittens in order to teach them to do it for themselves, show them affection, and create a bond.

In fact, according to certified feline behavior and training consultant Marci Koski, a group of cats living together often designate an “allo-groomer” – a cat that licks and grooms the other cats in the group.

If you find your cat licking you, they might be trying to fulfill their role as the “allo-groomer”– cleaning you and establishing your membership in their group.

4. To taste something interesting

As simple (and even silly) as it may seem, your cat may be licking you because they taste something interesting on your skin. You may have spilled something, or came into contact with something that left a residue on your skin – and your cat likes the way it tastes. If it’s warm, or you’ve been exercising, it could be that your sweat has left a salty residue, and that’s what your cat is trying to taste.

Interestingly enough, although cats’ tongues are made for grooming, they have a much more muted sense of taste in comparison to humans. In fact, cats are one of the only mammals that are known not to be able to taste sweets.

5. To get your attention

Another possible reason why your cat licks you may just be that they want your attention. Whether they want you to pet them, feed them, or pay attention to them, your cat may lick you to try and capture your attention.

In this case, licking can be equivalent to any other attention-seeking cat behavior, like pawing at you, or meowing.

6. To cope with anxiety or stress

Finally, your cat might lick you because they’re anxious or stressed. Although sometimes excessive licking or grooming can indicate a medical issue, many times cats lick you, or themselves, as a coping mechanism for stress or anxiety.

You might find your cat licking you after moving to a new home, or experiencing a change in their environment. Typically, this kind of licking isn’t anything to worry about – unless your cat grooms themselves so much that their skin becomes raw or they create bald spots. In this case, you’ll want to talk to your veterinarian about what you can do to remedy this behavior.

Why does it hurt when my cat licks me?

A question directly related to, “Why does my cat lick me?” is “Why does it hurt when my cat licks me?” When it comes down to it, the answer is simple.

As we mentioned earlier, a cat’s tongue is covered in little spines called papillae. These papillae are made of keratin, the same substance that makes up human fingernails. Because cats are self groomers, the makeup of their tongue is strong enough to get saliva down to their skin, as well as detangle their fur, remove substances like dirt, and redistribute oils.

Therefore, when a cat licks you – repeatedly rubbing their spine-covered tongue on your skin – it’s apt to hurt a little. It’s for this reason that cats’ tongues are often compared to sandpaper.

How do I get my cat to stop licking me?

Unless your cat is repeatedly licking you and grooming excessively, licking isn’t usually anything to worry about – it’s a natural cat behavior. However, with the rough makeup of a cat’s tongue, it can be annoying to have them consistently licking you.

If you’re looking to curb this behavior, the best thing you can do is try to redirect their attention. If your cat likes cuddling, you might cuddle or start petting them to try and distract them from licking. Similarly, you might try and use a toy to divert their attention from licking to playing. Finally, you might simply walk away or move away from your cat if the licking becomes excessive.

While your cat licking you isn’t typically anything to worry about – and can even be a compliment – if at any time you’re concerned with their behavior, we recommend that you reach out to Dr. McMillen or your regular veterinarian for a consultation.

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