—Feline Behavior Specialist 🇺🇸
Many mornings, I wake up to my cat Dolly bathing my hair or face. She is never shy about pawing at my hair when she wants to lick it too and will even do it from the top of my upright piano while I’m playing. What is this behavior all about?
There could actually be numerous reasons why Dolly’s licking me and your cat’s licking you. Here are the most likely explanations.
Reason 1: Grooming
One of my favorite things about cats is that they groom themselves. It’s remarkable how well maintained they keep their coats, and it’s all based in the physiology of their tongues and instinct.
Most would describe a cat’s tongue as feeling like sandpaper because it’s covered with rear-facing curved and hollow spines called papillae, which are made of keratin, the same thing as our nails.
The papillae transfer saliva to their fur, where it performs two tasks: cleans fur and controls body temperature. Since papillae are also flexible, their rotation helps loosen any knots or dislodge pieces of dirt.
Kittens learn how to groom from their mother, who takes on the responsibility of cleaning her entire litter until they learn how to do it on their own. You’ll find littermates eventually bathing each other and even their mother.
As cats grow older, they will groom other cats and people they like, just as their mother taught them. A cat will not groom a cat (or a person) it doesn’t like.
Since cats view us as equals, your cat may groom you because they like you or they want to teach you how to groom yourself, both lessons they learned from their mother.
Reason 2: Affection
When a mother grooms her kittens, it isn’t just to clean them—it’s also a sign of affection. Licking is a way to build a social bond between cats.
How can you tell if your cat’s grooming you or showing affection?
It’s really impossible to know 100%, but I’m inclined to think just a few licks is affection, whereas a longer bath is grooming.
One cat may just lick another cat on the head once or twice and then do something else, and I believe this is a display of affection over grooming since we all know grooming takes a little more effort and time.
Reason 3: Attention
What do you do if your cat licks you? Most likely, you respond in some way by giving affection or talking to them.
Your cat might lick you because they want something. What they want can vary from cat to cat, but it could be pets, food, or even playtime. It’s sort of the same idea behind why cats meow at us—they know we respond.
It’s very hard not to respond when a cat is licking you, so if it’s at a time when you don’t want it to happen, try to distract them with a toy. If it’s early in the morning, you can try removing your cat from your bedroom, putting them in the hall, and closing the door so you can return to bed.
Over time, they’ll realize they aren’t getting what they want, and the behavior should diminish if not stop completely.
Cats are extremely territorial and will use their bodies to mark areas and leave pheromones (chemical signals) and their scent behind.
Pheromones are released by scent glands all over their bodies but also in their saliva, urine, and feces. By licking you, they are leaving behind their scent for later or even for other cats so they know who you belong to.
Reason 5: Taste
Another reason your cat is licking you might be because they like the taste of something on your skin and hair.
My cats often lick me after I finish a workout, which I always assume is because sweat is salty.
My cat Dolly often licks my hair, making me think there is some ingredient that tastes good in the hair products I use, or perhaps my hair just reminds her of her own fur, which brings us to our next reason.
Reason 6: Texture
It’s possibly cats like us (as well as objects) because they like the texture on their tongue. I’ve seen cats lick blankets, clothing, toys, and even their own cat beds.
It’s hard to say what our skin and hair feel like on their tongue, but if it felt bad, I’m sure they wouldn’t lick it.
I also wonder if this action helps almost clean their tongue. If fur or dirt gets stuck on their tongue, they can’t brush it, so maybe licking other objects helps remove any small particles that are stuck.
Reason 7: Anxiety
Cats lick their lips when they’re anxious or nervous, and you may notice your cat licking you when they feel this way. Some events cats find particularly stressful include:
- Adding a new human or animal.
- A move.
- Parties or outdoor events with lots of noise.
- Rearranging furniture.
- Home renovations or construction.
If the licking becomes obsessive or you see your cat overgrooming, talk to your vet. You’ll want to rule out all possible medical reasons (these could include allergies, parasites, and fleas).
If your cat gets a clean bill of health, then you’ll want to target the anxiety. Some cats are so anxious, their licking becomes compulsive, and they give themselves bald spots. Step in as soon as you notice anything excessive so you can immediately nip it in the bud.
Your vet may recommend pheromone diffusers, calming collars, or even anti-anxiety medication.
Reason 8: Calming
At the same time, your cat may also be trying to calm you if they think you’re anxious. Mothers will groom their kittens when they’re upset as a way to relax them, and then adult cats even groom each other if they sense one cat is anxious. It’s very possible your cat is doing the same thing to you, so if you notice you’re anxious, try to relax.
What to Do If Your Cat Keeps Licking You
Keep in mind that most of the reasons cats lick are for good reasons, so you don’t have to stop it unless you don’t like it or it’s becoming compulsive. The easiest way to get a cat to alter behavior is to distract them with something positive, like playtime.
In addition to containing proteins, cat saliva contains enzymes that act like a detergent or natural antibiotic to clean their fur and sometimes minor cuts and scrapes on their bodies. But, their saliva also contains bacteria. Licking your skin is okay, but never allow a cat to lick an open wound on you.
You also never want your cat to lick a pet bird because it could cause the bird to get a serious infection.
For the most part, your cat probably licks you because they love you and want to continue establishing a close bond.
However, keep an eye out for any indication that your cat is nervous or anxious, and always ask your vet about any concerning compulsive behavior.
Arnold, Carrie. National Geographic, How Cat Tongues Work – And Can Inspire Human Tech.
Cornell University. Cornell Feline Health Center, Cats That Lick Too Much.
Kriss, Randa. prrrs&wags by Pumpkin Pet Care, Why Does My Cat Lick Me?
Syufy, Franny. The Spruce Pets, Why Does My Cat Lick Me?
Viegas, Jennifer. Reader’s Digest Canada, 7 Reasons Why Cats Are So Clean
Article by Elizabeth Italia 🙋♀️
Cat Behavior & Fostering Specialist