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Why do cats lick you? 6 possible explanations for this

Why do cats lick you? White cat licking woman on the nose
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Why do cats lick you? Well, as you’ve probably already figured out, cats are complex creatures, so there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. We tend to think that cats lick to show affection, but is that accurate, or is there more to those  tongue lashings than we realize?

Cat communication can be tricky to decipher, and curling up on your lap and licking you is often their way of trying to ask for what they need. While every sandpapery lick probably feels the same to you, each one tells a tale, and learning the most common things your kitty is expressing to you through their tongue can help you understand them better.

Let’s take a look at six of the most likely answers to the question, 'why do cats lick you'...

Why do cats lick you and what does it mean?

A common question cat owners have is 'Why does my cat lick me?'. You sit down with them for a snuggle and a stroke, and then the gorgeous little furball starts grooming you with their tongue. It can be a delightful - if rather rough - experience, but what does it mean? And is it anything you need to be worried about?

Your fur baby may be licking you for all kinds of reasons which we'll explore below, but rather pleasingly the most common cause is down to affection. They are simply showing their love for you in the way that they would with other cats - you’ve just been accepted as part of their family. However, that's not the only reason for this behavior, so here's a breakdown of the 6 most common reasons cats may be licking you.

1. I love you

Cats form bonds with each other just like humans do, so if you have more than one cat in your home and they get on well, you may have noticed them licking each other. Cats will lick anyone that they consider to be a part of their family or tribe, whether it’s another cat, a dog, or a human.

“To a cat, it doesn’t matter that you’re human,” says Dr. Sara Ochoa, DVM. “Once they have come to care for you, they will treat you the same way as any member of its group.”

Light licks are a way of showing love and affection and are often accompanied by other behaviors such as purring, nuzzling, or rubbing their head up against you. Cats love grooming those they care about, so if someone's asking, 'why do cats lick you?' consider yourself one of the gang.

2. You’re all mine

Tabby cat licking persons hand

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Here's one not-so surprising answer to the question, 'why do cats lick you?' Licking is one of the ways a cat will mark their territory, and that extends to their humans. Your scent is strongest on your feet, hands, and face, and as a cat’s saliva carries their scent, your furkid may lick those spots as a way of mixing their scent with yours. 

According to Dr Ochoa, cats are possessive of anything they consider to be their property, and licking you sends a warning to other cats to back off. “Licking is a way of letting other cats know that they care about you and that you belong to them.”

3. Let’s get you cleaned up

When pondering, 'why do cats lick you?', here's another possible answer. Cats learn to clean themselves by being groomed by their mothers when they’re kittens, and this memory stays with them through adulthood. Cats associate being groomed with care and affection and will often lick their humans in an attempt to keep them clean and show that same love.

“Within a group of cats living together, there is typically a designated ‘allo-groomer,’ which is a cat that licks and grooms the other cats in the group,” explains feline behavior specialist Marci Koski. “Usually, the members of the group are related to each other, so licking a human may be the cat's attempt to include you as part of her group.”

While being covered in kitty saliva might make you feel more dirty than clean, for your cat it’s an important part of the bonding process.

4. You taste so good

why do cats lick you

(Image credit: Getty Images)

While you probably already know that dogs will do just about anything to get their paws on some human chow, it turns out our feline friends like our food as much as our canine companions do. 

If there’s something tasty on your skin, your kitty will happily get to work licking it off you – even if you can’t visibly see signs of food. A cat's sense of smell is far more sensitive than ours, so they can sniff out the remnants of that steak juice that dropped on your hand long after you’ve wiped it away. 

Cats are especially fond of anything salty, which is why they’ll often be drawn to licking you when you’ve been working up a sweat. The salt build-up on your skin contains sodium, chloride, and potassium, which leaves a sweet and salty residue when it evaporates – something that likely grosses you out, but your kitty finds rather tasty. 

5. I’ll comfort you, and you can comfort me

If you’ve noticed that your cat licks you more when you’re feeling down, there’s a good reason for it. Cats have a much deeper emotional connection to us than we might think, and are capable of being highly empathetic. 

Studies have shown that cats form unique, complex, and deeply emotional relationships with their owners that causes them to feel distressed when their owners are in pain. “If your cat senses you are stressed or sick, it may lick to help calm you down or make you feel better, just like it would another cat in the wild," says Dr Ochoa.

The reverse is also true, with cats often licking members of their group as a way to calm themselves down when they’re feeling anxious. If your cat’s licking becomes compulsive, it could also be due to stress or boredom. Try distracting them by using some of the best cat toys to play games with them, and consult a vet if excessive licking continues to be an issue. 

6. I'd like some attention please!

If you have responded to previous cat grooming sessions with a longer stroke or tummy tickle, your cat may have found that this is a good way to get you to show them some attention. Once they learn that this action means more interaction, they may just be telling you they want you to play with them.

Should you let your cat lick you?

As long as you wash your hands (or wherever they've been grooming you) afterward there’s usually no harm caused by letting your cat lick you. An exception to this is if you have an open wound or scratch – as a cat’s tongue can carry some potentially harmful bacteria. 

It can hurt as well. Because cats use their tongues for cleaning stubborn tangles out of their fur they are rather rough - a lot of people have described the experience as being gently rubbed with wet sandpaper! That rough texture is caused by 'papillae' - back-facing barbs that are made of the same material as your kitty's claws. They need to be sharp to penetrate their fur and remove any dirt and debris trapped within. This means your cat licking you isn't always that fun. If it's not a sensation you enjoy there are a few ways to dissuade them. 

How do I stop my cat licking me?

If you want to discourage your cat from licking your skin you can simply wear long sleeves to cover the areas they usually like to groom. You can also just get up and leave when they start – your furry friend will hopefully get the message that this is something you don't enjoy. Don't ignore them completely, however, and when you share some comfort time with them that doesn't involve licking give them a few of the best cat treats to show that this behavior is something you enjoy. 

It may be tempting to use more aggressive tactics like pushing them away or squirting them with water, but remember your cat is likely bonding with you. Such actions can destroy their trust in you as they will feel you are spurning them when they are showing you affection. More passive methods like those mentioned above, or providing them with distractions like cat toys when they start to groom you, should help them get the message. 

If you have tried all this and the licking persists then this may be due to them feeling overly anxious, and again, it's time to take them to the vet to check them out.