Oh, the cat’s tongue. It’s as cute as can be when it’s peeking out just a bit from the cat’s mouth as she drinks water or delicately grooms herself. It’s small and pink and so adorable. Yet, when that little tongue starts licking you, that little sandblaster seems as if it could take off several layers of skin.
Licking serves many social and practical functions. It’s how cats remove meat from bones and also how they maintain their coats. Licking removes the scent of prey after a meal, it’s how mothers clean their kittens and help them eliminate their waste. In a multicat environment or in a cat colony, allogrooming helps create a familiar group scent. Licking is also a way cats cool themselves. That’s just a few of the ways that cute little tongue is kept busy. In a previous article I discussed in detail why cats groom so much (access article here) but in this post I want to cover the licking that cats tend to do toward family members.
When your cat licks you, is it the feline equivalent of a kiss? Is she marking you as hers? Well, let’s examine some of the reasons cats lick us.
Cats Lick to Strengthen Social Bonds
Cats who are familiar and friendly will often lick each other. This behavior helps the bond grow stronger and the exchange that takes place helps create a familiar group scent. Cats depend on scent as an important means of identification.
When your cat licks you, it’s also a way of strengthening the bond and showing affection much the same way in which you display toward her by petting.
Your Cat May Lick You Due to Anxiety
Some cats lick and groom themselves to relieve anxiety and in some cases, it even results in bald patches. Your cat may also lick you as a way of comforting herself. If you notice areas of thinning hair or bald spots on your cat, talk to your veterinarian because there may be an underlying medical cause or your cat may be experiencing stress overload. When she licks you, if her body posture appears tense or if the licking goes on for an extended period, that may indicate an attempt to self-soothe.
Going Back to Kittenhood
Your cat may lick you while kneading her paws against you. She may also nuzzle close to your skin and purr. This is a throwback to kittenhood when the little kitten would nurse. This behavior displayed is an indication that your cat feels comfortable, safe and secure with you.
Some cats, especially those who were weaned too early or abruptly may engage in excessive licking and also may suckle on soft objects, your clothing, or even parts of your body such as your earlobes.
When Your Cat Licks You it Can be a Bit Painful
A cat’s tongue has backward-facing barbs on it that are made of keratin. These barbs help the cat rasp meat from the bones of captured prey. The barbs are also important in grooming because they help the cat remove dead hair, debris and parasites from the fur. While these barbs are certainly very useful, they create that scratchy feeling when your cat licks you. If the cat remains fixated on licking you in the same spot repeatedly, it can definitely become uncomfortable.
Reducing How Much Your Cat Licks You
If your cat is licking as a self-soothing behavior then it’s important to identify the cause of her stress. If you have a multicat household, look at the relationships between the cats and see if there’s an issue that needs to be addressed. You may need to increase vertical territory, provide more resources in more locations and work on helping the cats form a peaceful co-existence.
There are many other causes of stress and some are subtle and easy for human family members to miss.
Provide more enrichment and outlets for energy. Engage your cat in interactive play sessions and also provide opportunities for solo play. Offer food puzzle toys so your cat has positive forms of distraction to keep her busy.
You can probably tell when your cat is getting ready to start licking you. There may be a typical position you get in that becomes inviting to her. Learn to recognize the early signs so you can distract her with a toy. You can let her cuddle close to you but be ready to place an inviting toy or small pillow between the two of you.
Playtime is a confidence-building activity so when you first notice the signs of impending licking behavior, engage your cat in an interactive play session. Successfully capturing her “prey” helps change her mindset from needy to confident.
Help her remain occupied and happy when you aren’t available to do interactive play sessions by making sure she has fun and interesting opportunities for solo play. Puzzle feeders are a great way to keep a cat entertained, challenged and when she succeeds, she gets a food reward for her good work.
Tweak Your Cat’s Environment
If the licking is due to stress, boredom or separation issues, you can make some additions to keep your cat’s environment more stimulating. Place a cat tree near a window so your cat can watch the outdoor activity. If it’s practical, place a bird feeder outside the window for some reality cat TV. You can find more environmental enrichment ideas here.
Stay Calm and Positive With Your Cat
When your cat licks you too much it definitely can hurt and it can be easy to lose your patience. Don’t damage the bond you share by shoving her away, yelling or hitting. Develop a positive and constructive game plan that starts with determining why she’s licking you so you can come up with a loving, kind and effective solution.
Need More Information?
For more specifics on cat behavior and training, refer to any of the books by best-selling author Pam Johnson-Bennett, including her latest release, CatWise and Amazon’s #1 best-selling cat training book, Think Like a Cat. Remember, if your cat is excessively licking, whether it’s directed toward herself or others, have her examined by the veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical issue.
Pam is unable to respond to comments. If you have questions about your cat’s behavior, refer to her books or the articles on our website. This article is not intended to be a replacement for your cat’s veterinary care so if you have a question about your cat’s health, consult with your veterinarian.