Despite their aversion to water, cats love to feel clean. They just take their bath a little differently than us, using the tongue instead. Sometimes, they groom the other cats, too. But why would they lick humans? Is that a way for your furry friend to tell you that you should take a bath more often? 

Well, that would be too simple – and cats are complicated beings, as all cat owners know very well. Understanding your pet is the easiest way to improve your relationship – and licking is one of the fundamental elements of its body language. By licking you, your cat may try to communicate different things. In today’s article, we’ll try to break this issue down for you. 

How does the cat’s tongue work?

Before we delve into the reasons why the cats licks their owners, let’s take a quick look into anatomy. The secret of the ability of the felines to clean themselves lies in the structure of their tongue. It works like a tender comb due to the presence of scoop-shaped papilla on the surface. It grabs excessive hair and all kinds of impurities, while allowing the saliva to reach the skin instead of sinking into the fur. That’s a very effective strategy that makes the cats one of the best groomers in the animal kingdom!

Why do the cats lick humans?

The behaviors of feline animals are often wrongly interpreted by humans. Sometimes, what we perceive as aggression is actually a defensive attitude – that’s often the case with hissing. In terms of showing affection, cats are also a hard nut to crack compared to dogs. Their ways of showing love are often much more subtle, and you need some practice to actually notice these signs.

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However, in terms of licking, cats and dogs actually have a lot in common! For both, it’s a great way to express warm emotions. Dogs usually go all the way – if they really love someone, they’ll lick their face. Most of them leave this questionable pleasure for their owners since it’s a sign of ultimate affection. 

Cats are more restrained in the context of licking, but it’s also a significant element of their love alphabet. They usually lick the hands of the owners only – with some exceptions, of course.

There are five main reasons why the cat may lick you:

  1. To mark you as theirs
  2. To show you love and affection
  3. To get your attention
  4. To groom you
  5. To comfort itself

Remember, however, that sometimes the explanation is more prosaic. Your cat may lick you just because it senses the food you’ve been eating and preparing not a long time before. Some pets like the smell of sweat, and they may lick you because of that.

Licking as a way to express emotions

Your cat licks your hand when you’re stroking it? That’s a great sign – it means that it’s feeling 100% safe at the moment and is enjoying your company. The pet may use licking as a way to express affection and care. It doesn’t only apply to humans – cats can lick their four-legged friends for the same purpose.

Licking as a way to mark the territory

Cats have a strong territorial instinct. They use different strategies to mark their territory; all aim at leaving the smell and pheromones on a particular object or space. This way, it becomes theirs. Cats mark territory with their urine, but also through rubbing and licking. 

To leave their territorial mark, cats lick the accessories, but also… their owners. This way, they can transport their scent to you, making you their property. Of course, this smell is undetectable by humans – but the other animals can sense it. Cats lick their owners to send a clear message to their furry friends – this human is mine, and don’t you dare to try to steal them from me!

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Licking as a way to groom you 

Cats love to feel clean, and sometimes they may want to clean you too. But grooming the human is never really about hygiene. By doing it, your cat is trying to establish your position in the group. By putting the familiar scent on you, they make you the herd’s member. 

It’s the same mechanism that makes the freshly made mother cats intensely lick their kittens. This way, she makes them a part of the herd. Their rejection has terrible consequences – the dominant males sometimes kill the kittens, particularly if they have another father. Even if the kitty lives in a safe environment where there’s no risk of herd rejection, these mechanisms manifest themselves in grooming the others.

So, if the cat is licking you, it may be trying to tell you: welcome to the family! It’s another way of expressing their care and protecting you from potential dangers.

Licking as a way to comfort themselves

The cats lick their kittens to protect them from the herd’s rejection but also to comfort them. Grown-up animals may reproduce these behaviors in adult life when they’re trying to fight stress. Such tendencies are particularly common among the young kitties that were separated from their mother too early. They often develop a tendency to groom themselves in search of comfort. It’s their surrogate of nursing. 

What happens, however, when the licking becomes compulsive? How to recognize that your cat has a grooming-related issue, and what can be its roots?

Excessive licking – what are the reasons behind it?

If your cat doesn’t lick you at all, there’s nothing to worry about – generally, cats do it way rarer than dogs or even don’t do it at all. What could bother you, however, is the excessive licking. Most of the time, it’s an issue tied to grooming. It manifests itself in very frequent fur-licking, often in the same areas over and over. 

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How to know when the cat’s behavior is abnormal? If you suspect that the pet’s grooming patterns are unhealthy, observe them closely throughout the whole day. See how much time it spends cleaning its fur. If it’s over 50% of the day, it may fall under the category of compulsive behaviors.

What causes the cats to over-groom? The reasons may vary. Some animals do it as a result of stress. Just as purring, grooming can become a coping mechanism that helps the animal deal with a stressful situation such as changing the environment or the introduction of a new cat to the space. Sometimes, the cats purr and groom simultaneously – that may be a hint that they’re trying to comfort themselves.

Over-grooming can also be a result of a disease. It doesn’t always have a psychological background – sometimes, it originates in physical discomfort experienced by the cats. They may lick some spots extensively when feeling pain or itchiness in the area. Licking may speed up the regenerations of the wounds, but if it’s excessive, it may actually bring an opposite effect. Sometimes, the rash and itchiness are caused by an allergic reaction to new food.

The cats can over-groom due to internal health issues as well – for instance, gastric problems or diabetes. Licking helps them deal with the discomfort and pain. 

What can happen if your cat licks itself excessively?

When you notice the unhealthy grooming patterns, it’s worth reacting right away and consulting the pet’s behavior with a veterinarian. Excessive grooming may end up in fur loss or even the formation of wounds. To prevent that, nip the issue in the bud by consulting it with a specialist and serving the pet the prescribed medication.