Why Do Cats Lick?
Why Do Cats Lick? This is a question that I get asked a lot. Cats are known for being clean animals, but not nearly as affectionate as dogs. Dogs lick you as a way to show their love and affection for you. Basically, a way to give you kisses.
But cats aren’t always know for that. Yet, we will still see instances where a cat is licking themselves, licking another animal, sometimes they are even licking you! Our kitten Zoe loves to lick my face at night, and Chloe will always lick my face when I am upset.
When we first got them, we were so curious why they licked us so much, which led me to do research. I was then asked the question a little later by some friends and was able to give them the answers I had found. In talking with them, I realized this question was a lot more common than I realized, so I wanted to share them with you!
The Myth on Why Cats Lick
Before we go into any details, I wanted to talk about the myths behind cats licking. Some people say cats lick solely as a way of grooming. Whether they are licking themselves, another animal, or you, it is because they think it needs cleaned.
Other people go back to the dog theory that cats lick mainly as a way to show affection to other animals. If your cat licks you, then he or she loves you. When they lick the other pets, that means they love the other pets. It is their way of making a social bond with whatever they are licking.
While parts of each of these theories are true, there is so much more that goes into licking than meets the eye, or in the case, tongue.
Why Cats Lick Themselves
First, let’s go into the easiest one, why cats lick themselves. This one is fairly simple because most of the talk about this is true. Cats are very clean animals and will lick themselves as a way to groom themselves.
Since cats like to be clean, the lick themselves to remove any excess dirt, or even possible mats in their fur. You will often see a cat spending multiple hours in a day grooming themselves. Some with stay up until the waking hours grooming because they want to be clean cats. Some have the pet behavior, some don’t. This is also dependent on different cat breeds. Some are known to groom themselves more often than others.
Another reason some cats lick themselves is to self soothe. Highly anxious cats can exhibit social behavior that is called displacement activity. Displacement behaviors include things such self-grooming, touching, or scratching, displayed when an animal has a conflict between two motivations, such as the desire to approach an object while at the same time being fearful of that object.
So some animals may be fearful of you but what your love so they will self-sooth their feelings by licking themselves or scratch something. That actually explains a lot of the behavior poor Wobbles had when we first got her.
So if you have a new cat, this could be a potential reason for you! You just want to be careful and watch for hair loss as this can cause more issues for your cat in the future.
Why Cats Lick Cats and Dogs
That first one was easy! Let’s move onto the next easiest one, why cats lick other animals. Sometimes you will see a cat licking another cat, sometimes even a dog! There are two pretty simple reasons why cats will groom family pets.
The first one is obvious; they are grooming the other one. Oftentimes I will see my cats groom each other’s head and neck, which are the places cats obviously cannot reach themselves. They are helping the other cat get clean, usually expecting grooming in return. This also becomes more common in adult cats if this is how they were raised with other kittens. (Chloe and Zoe groom the older cats all the time!).
Now the other reason is one that just melts my heart. Cats will groom other animals as a sign of affection and care. Sometimes cats will groom new kittens as a way of letting them know they are part of the family. Cats can also groom each other as a way of showing love for one another. Not quite at the level of kissing, but I would think of it as the human equivalent to hugging. They are helping to comfort one another in this sense.
If we want to get comical, some cats even groom cat toys. They are basically telling the toy how much they love it and appreciate it. AREN’T CATS JUST THE CUTEST?!
Cats Licking Cats Example
One perfect example is my animals. I now have four cats, a post to explain how we went from two to four later. We had taken all four of them on a car trip recently and it is known Wobbles does not love car trips.
All three other animals love it! They run around, look out the window, and eventually crash about 20 minutes into a car trip. This particular trip, Wobbles was nervous and decided to be vocal about it. She started meowing. I went and picked her up and swaddled her so she felt safe.
Not 30 seconds after she meowed and I picked her up, one of the kittens ran over to her. What she did was the cutest thing, she began to lick her. The kitten started purring and licking Wobbles, and Wobbles would slow blink (a sign of trust in cats) and began to purr.
The kittens were comforting Wobbles showing her that she wasn’t alone, and that they care about her! Which provided comfort to Wobbles who fell asleep not 10 minutes after all of that. It was like the toddler came and comforted the child and it helped them both in the long run.
Why Cats Lick People
If that section before did not melt your heart, this next section definitely will. We are moving on to the most complex question. Why do cats lick humans? Ever catch yourself asking, ‘why does my cat lick me?’ There are multiple reasons why cats lick people and we will go into the details of them all. The main reasons are: grooming, affection, territory, and comfort.
Ah, the age old reason. Yes, sometimes your cat will lick you to groom you. They see you as part of their pack, and sometimes they see you as dirty, even if you are not. When kittens are little mother cats, or older cats, would lick the babies to help clean and stimulate them. In their eyes, they are basically returning the favor to the other members of the pack for cleaning them when they were babies.
A funny example I like to use is my cat Phoebe. She will lick me when I come upstairs from running on the treadmill. She will lick the sweat off my legs, which I know is gross. And sometimes, she will lick me after I am out of the shower.
In this instance, even though we are not technically dirty, there is something they cats are not used to seeing, so they will lick you to help clean you up. So if you have a cat that licks your sweaty face, they are just trying to help keep you clean!
While this is cute, sometimes it can be really frustrating. If you find your cat having excessive grooming behaviors, fear not. They don’t understand that a cat’s tongue is not always the most gentle, smooth object in the world. Our feline friends don’t really understand that human hair is not fur and when they go to lick it, it’s not fun for either party. I even have my kittens sometimes try to lick coconut oil, or other hair products, out of my hair when its in a mask. If you want your cat to stop licking certain areas you can try citrus flavored objects. Cats don’t like the smell of citrus and it will keep them away and not attempting to lick you.
For example, if you have a coconut mask in your hair, you could maybe add a little lemon in there too to help deter your licking cats. Apple cider vinegar is a great option too!
Let’s continue with my favorite cat behavior reason, affection! Why do cats lick you? Cats do show affection towards humans. They really do love you; you can read about the ways cat show love in my previous post, here. Sometimes cats will lick you as a way to show affection, similar to a dog.
My kittens will start licking me as a way to show their love for me sometimes. There was one day I was crying about them, a detail I will explain in the story shortly. Chloe could tell I was upset. She kept jumping up on me. My cat was licking the tears away from my eyes. (How do you now start laughing at that?!) She would then continue to lick my hair and make funny faces which was her way of showing love and comfort when I was feeling sad.
Cats use pheromones to mark their territory. Pheromones are found all around a cat’s body. Their urine, they necks, even their tongues.
While most people know that cats mark property by urinating on things, they can mark their territory in other ways as well. Licking and head rubs are ways for cats to claim you as part of their property—affectionately. They are putting their scent on you so other animals know that you are theirs.
You can help this by putting pheromones, like these, around you help to help your cat feel safe that this is their territory.
Finally, one reasons cat lick is for their own comfort. I joke that I am pretty sure my kitten Zoe has a form of OCD. She has to lick my face every night for about 30 seconds before she cuddles into bed.
She was actually one of the main reasons I decided to research the licking because it seemed so excessive. What I found out was sometimes they will lick as a comfort to themselves. If they are feeling anxious, or just want a little extra love they will lick you, especially your face and hands.
What I have done to help Zoe in case she does feel anxious at night is a few things. I put a face mask over my eyes and turn my body to the side. She is then able to lick the side of my face without getting to my mouth and my eyes and can then cuddle into sleep.
If she does this during the day time, I always start to pet her and rub behind her ears. I want her to know that her feeling are heard and if she needs that attention, I will give it to her. This usually stops her need to lick because she is given the attention she needs. If you notice your cat excessively licking you, try giving them some extra attention. They could just be begging for it.
There are many different reasons why cats will lick. And it varies greatly based on who they are actually licking. So watch your cat next time. Do they only lick themselves? Do they groom your other pets? Do they lick you? All of these could mean sometime unique and give you additional inside on the mind of your cat. Hopefully now you can explain what does it mean when your cat licks you.
Readers! Does your cat do something odd that you can’t explain why they do it? Ask below! Chances are it is not as uncommon as you may think!