Cats exhibit behaviors that often seem strange to us.
We get why dogs lick us — that’s what they do to show affection and give kisses. Cats, however, are thought to be considerably less exuberant in their expressions of love.
So, why would your cat lick you? Here are 4 possible explanations.
1. Personality Quirk
Like people, cats have a wide range of personalities.
- Some like to sit on laps and be close to their humans as much as possible to show their affection.
- Some prefer to make utter pests of themselves by pouncing on your feet as you walk by, or tromping on your keyboard while you’re working.
- Others show affection by bringing you dead rodents and then being offended when you’re horrified. (“It was a gift!”)
Licking, then, is often simply “a way of showing trust and care,” according to Dr. Patty Khuly, DVM. Your cat is grooming you.
Just be sure your cat is not allowed to lick you in the face. “Pets can harbor many bacterial organisms in their mouth,” says Dr. Donna Solomon, DVM.
2. Pain Management
Many animals will lick themselves when they are in pain. If you have a cat like mine, who begrudgingly bestows the occasional meager lick that suddenly becomes licking to excess, you may want to take a closer look.
- Make sure there are no irritations on your cat’s skin, or that they are not visibly injured in some way.
- Check the paws and claws — if cats’ claws aren’t taken care of, they can grow into their paw pads. It’s painful, and you’d certainly see a lot of licking as they try to soothe themselves.
When in doubt, call your veterinarian. Often behavior changes are the first sign of something wrong, and many illnesses and injuries are best treated in the early stages.
3. Missing Mom or Bonding Rituals
Kittens weaned from their mother too young or who are orphaned may display excessive licking and/or suckling into adulthood.
Kittens should stay with their mother until they are at least 6 weeks old. It’s even better if they can stay for 7–12 weeks.
Technically, licking and suckling are classified as infantile behavior, and kittens taken from their mother too young may cling to this behavior even when they get older.
Often, cats who live together (and get along) can be seen licking one another. They’re grooming each other and basically just saying, “Hey, I like you.” It’s no surprise that your cat will display this behavior with you — your cat wants to bond.
I don’t recommend licking them back, though. Cat hair is awful to get off your own tongue.
Stress has an impact on cats just as much as it does on people.
When your cat was a kitten, their mother would lick them constantly to keep them clean and to show affection. This is soothing to cats, and when your cat is experiencing a lot of stress, they may lick more than usual.
If you see a lot of licking going on, try to think about whether there have been any stressful situations lately. Examples include:
If you think your cat is experiencing high levels of stress, do your best to combat it. Most stressors will resolve in time. Here are some examples of what I mean:
- A stressful move to a new home will resolve as your cat becomes more familiar with the surroundings.
- If you have a bunch of people over, use this as your excuse to kick them all out!
How to Stop a Cat From Licking You
If you have a cat who just plain likes to lick, you might consider yourself lucky. (Licky?) They are showing you affection and trying to bond with you the best way they know how.
If you find it unpleasant, gently discourage them but don’t punish them. A little spritz with a water bottle or moving them away from you when they lick will show that you don’t appreciate it, but won’t cause your cat any pain.
You don’t have to cringe and put up with it as the guy in this video does:
According to the ASPCA, “Another option is to provide your cat with an acceptable object to chew or suckle instead of you.”
If the excessive licking you’re seeing is an abrupt behavior change, consider calling the vet. At best, your vet will tell you your cat is fine, but you might just catch a serious health problem at the best time — in the early stages.