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What Does it Mean When a Cat Licks You? (2023) 9 Reasons You Should Know

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We all love our adorable felines – from their purrfect little stares to their rough, bristled tongues that lick us as though we’re a tasty snack. But what does it mean when a cat licks you? It’s a common question that many parents think about.

Many assume kitties lick them as a sure sign of love – which isn’t that far off. While it’s difficult to determine whether cats feel emotions such as love, licking can be a sign of affection.

Mother cats lick their kittens as part of the grooming process, which continues into adulthood. The practice whereby the same species of animals groom each other has a special name allogrooming,

In this article, we’ll explain some possible reasons behind your kitty’s licking habits.

ginger cat with green eyes and tongue out up close

What Does it Mean When a Cat Licks You? 9 Reasons Why

Oh, the feline tongue – it can be as cute as anything, when her small pink tongue peeks out a little from her mouth as she delicately grooms herself, or you. There are several different reasons and meanings behind why your cat licks you with its sandblasting tongue

1. It’s Displaying Affection

In the same way that you pet your cat to show affection; your feline may return the favor by giving you a lick – or ten.

woman with brown hair cuddling tabby cat

Just as how your sweet kitty was licked and groomed by her loving mother, your cat could be replicating this behavior, too.

Mother cats lick their kittens for the following reasons:

  • To develop a bond
  • To help keep them clean
  • To encourage them to drink her milk
  • To encourage them to urinate and defecate
  • To teach kittens how to take care of their fur

The above reasons show that grooming behavior often comes from a kind place.

2. Cats Lick to Mark You as Their Territory

Cats use pheromones to mark their territory. While male cats mark their property by “spraying” on what’s ‘theirs,’ cats can claim you as theirs in other ways too.

Licking, headbutting, and kneading are some of the other ways your feline is claiming you as part of their territory – affectionately.

teen pretty girl kiss black cat close up portrait

When your kitty licks or headbutts against you, it’s reaffirming that you are important to them. They’re also leaving their scent for other cats to know that you’re spoken for.

So, next time your kitty licks you, think of it as if you’ve been accepted into their inner circle.

3. They’re Grooming You

Felines are notorious for keeping clean. They love to lounge around, licking themselves pristine and napping throughout the day. A healthy cat has a well-maintained, neat appearance.

grey cat licks grey kitten

Even though your kitty may not be aware that grooming won’t actually help you ‘get clean,’ this behavior is natural for them. As we already mentioned, Mommy cats lick their kittens to teach them how to groom, as well as show affection and establish bonds.   

Studies have shown, that allogrooming is most often performed between members of the same family.

While the idea of us being covered in cat saliva may not align with human hygiene standards, it’s an important behavior for your feline that promotes bonding and could even show that your cat wants to include you in their social group.

large grey cat licks ginger kitten

4. She Tastes Something Interesting

Spilt something tasty on your arm? Don’t get a shock to find your furry friend sliding up next to you to get a lick of it.

tabby kitten licks human finger what does it mean when a cat licks you

Although cats’ tongues are made for grooming, they have a much more muted sense of taste in comparison to humans. In fact, felines are one of the only mammals that aren’t able to taste something sweet- poor them!

Your kitty may be licking you because they taste something interesting on your skin.

The salty residue on your skin from the day’s heat or workout can taste interesting to your feline.

5. Your Kitty is Feeling Anxious

Licking humans and other cats can be a sign that your cat is feeling calm. Confusingly, anxiety can also be a reason for licking. Maybe another way to see it is how we humans need hugs when anxious or stressed; our cats find the need to lick.

grey kitten licks human finger

Although excessive licking can indicate a medical issue, most of the time, when your kitty licks you, it’s a coping mechanism for dealing with anxiety.

You may find your feline grooming you after experiencing a change in their environment, such as moving to a new home or the arrival of a new pet. Typically, this kind of licking is not anything you should worry about. 

You should pay attention to the context surrounding any changes in your kitty’s behavior. Long-term environmental stress can lead to conditions such as feline psychogenic alopecia.

grey cat eating woman's fingers

If you have a suspicion that your fur baby is suffering from stress contact your veterinarian for advice.

6. They’re Seeking Attention

Cats licking could be an invitation to join playtime, or for cuddles. If your cat is more food-orientated, they may be asking for food or a tasty snack

Kitten licking finger

⇒ Getting a new kitty? Check out my guide to How to Look after a Kitten, 6 Best Kitten Wet Food Options and 8 Best Kitten Dry Food Options

If your cat licks you after you’ve been away for a while, they may be looking for your attention.

Licking can be the same as any other attention-seeking behavior of your kitty, such as pawing, meowing, kneading, headbutting or sitting on you. If that is the case, grab a cat toy or a grooming brush and give your kitty some attention.

7. It’s a Survival Strategy

Cats are accustomed to washing themselves and each other after eating in order to eliminate food associated evidence. This is a cat’s survival strategy in nature to protect themselves from predators that may find them by following a lingering scent

cat tongue licking up close

Your cat pal may be licking you to de-scent you from your day’s snacks to keep you (and her) ‘safe.’

8. They think you are stressed

A cat will lick another cat if it thinks it needs to calm down. This is, of course, what mother cats do to their kittens. Your cat is probably far more aware of your moods than you might realise. If your cat thinks you are stressed or upset it may well be licking you to help you to calm down and therefore to feel better.

9. To Pay You the Ultimate Compliment

When a cat licks you it could be telling you that it feels completely safe in your presence. Your cat is saying that you are truly a member of its family because it is treating you as its mother treated it.

Why Does It Hurt When My Cat Licks Me?

Once your kitties licked away at you, another question is, ‘why does it hurt when my cat licks me?’

A cat’s tongue is covered in tiny spines called papillae. These papilla are made from keratin which can also be found in our fingernails or your cat’s claws.

grey cat with yellow eyes and tongue up

These backward-facing, barb-looking taste buds are essential for getting knots and debris out of your cat’s fur.

In addition to grooming, cats’ tongues serve many practical functions:

  • It helps remove flesh from bones.
  • Licking can remove the scent of prey after a meal.
  • Supports coat health by removing food and debris from their coats and promoting oil distribution

So, when your sweet feline licks you – rubbing their spine-covered tongues on your skin – it’s likely to feel a little uncomfortable. Especially if your cat does this excessively in the same place, it could feel like sandpaper rubbing against you; however, they do mean well.

Scottish Fold Tabby Cat with tongue out
Scottish Fold Cat

How do I discourage my cat from licking me?

Whilst the occasional lick from your kitty can be a pleasant experience, if your cat really enjoys licking you frequently it may become a bit more than you would like. However, most owners don’t want to push their cats away when they exhibit these behaviours as they are concerned that their cat might feel rejected.

The best way to reduce the amount that your cat is licking you without offending the is to provide a distraction. A great way to do this is with cat toys. Start playing with your cat while it is licking you and it will soon be more focussed on its favourite feather toy rather than you.

If play doesn’t work you can try treats as a distraction.. However, do be careful with this path as if your cat starts to associate excessive licking with more food your problem may get worse rather than better.

A Footnote: Why Do Cats Lick Me?

There are many different answers as to ‘why does my cat lick me?’ Overall, it’s a sign of social bonding and paying you a compliment.

It can also be a way for your cat to de-stress when they’re feeling anxious, and mark you as their territory. It’s up to you to determine which one best suits your feline’s personality.

While our cats lick us for several reasons, it’s mostly affectionate. So, next time your kitty starts to lick away at you, give them a gentle pet and feel honored to be considered a part of their family.

black and white tabby kitten licks another

Do you have a funny situation, story or photo that involves your cat licking you? Share it with us using the comments below!

charlotte photo

Meet the Veterinary Expert

Charlotte is a final year veterinary medicine student at the University of Zagreb, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. She’s volunteered in her university’s obstetrical clinic, and equine clinic, and is dog mum to 14-year-old Chiki. Charlotte loves to travel and has completed externships in Austria, Spain, and Belgium.

Please Note: This what does it mean when a cat licks you post contains affiliate links. That means if you click through on most of the links and end up making a purchase I will receive a small commission. This will not affect the price that you pay. I wanted to make sure that you were aware of this.

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