Dogs are known for their propensity to show love by giving you a good slurp. Cats, not so much. It’s not often that our feline friends lick things other than themselves and each other, so what does it mean if your cat is–or has recently become–a “licker”?
While getting a little love from our furry companions is generally a nice thing, excessive licking can be tiresome and sometimes even painful. Those little pink tongues are cute but they’re covered with barbs—like you’re getting kissed by a sanding machine. Curious why it happens? Here’s why cats lick and why yours may be licking you.
Why cats lick
According to experts at Cat Behavior Associates, licking serves many functions for cats including, but not limited to:
Eating: licking is how cats historically get meat off the tasty bones of their prey.
Cleaning: this includes coat maintenance, removing scents after a meal, cleaning other kitties, and for cats with kittens, help with elimination.
Scent: all grooming (group grooming) helps create a familiar scent to a cat colony.
Health: grooming is a way to keep cool, remove external parasites such as fleas, and a method of stress relief.
As for why your cat may be licking you, Marci Koski, a certified feline behavior and training consultant and owner of Feline Behavior Solutions in Washington State, tells PetMD that it’s considered positive. “I usually take my cats’ licking as a compliment,” she says.
Aside from themselves and members of their feline families, common materials cats lick includes cotton, plastic, bedding, and rubber.
Why your cat is licking you
Overall, there are four general reasons why cats lick their people:
1. They need attention
If your kitty’s licking is a new behavior or has become excessive, it’s probably a symptom of boredom or anxiety. Because licking is a soothing thing for cats, they may use it to self-soothe in the event of stressors such as a change in routine or a new family member (both the human and feline kind).
Even if there are no actual reasons you can think of for your kitty to be stressed, help take their mind off it by engaging in interactive play or by grooming your kitty with a brush. This can get their minds off the licking and also serve as quality bonding time, something the two of you can never have enough of.
2. You need to be “cleaned”
Not that you’re dirty or anything! Cleaning is a bonding activity for kitties, and if you have more than one you may see them frequently grooming one another—and that can include you. “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,” Koski points out to PetMD. When your cat licks you, it may be your cat trying to include you as part of their family group.
3. You taste yummy
Did you make a tuna fish sandwich for lunch? If you have good smells on you, your kitty might just be wanting to partake. Lotions, lip balms, perfumes or even just extra-salty skin from a workout can all attract a kitty. With scents, synthetic chemicals and essential oils are not good for kitties to ingest. If you suspect your cat is licking scented skin products, redirect the behavior.
4. You are loved
Frequently, licking is associated with nursing behavior, where your cat suckles and makes dough on you. This means your cat feels safe with you and wants to reinforce your bond.
But what if your cat is licking you too much?
If you like getting kisses here and there, there’s nothing wrong with encouraging your kitty to do so. If you don’t like all the licking, it’s a pretty easy behavior to stop through redirection, distraction, and enrichment. Pet Health Network recommends gently redirecting the licking to something else instead of shooing your cat off.
Consider keeping a little stash of toys at hand and distract your kitty with a little play session when the licking starts. Toys that will absorb your cat’s attention and keep her mind busy are also good options, such as an A.I. toy or interactive treat feeder. Mikel Delgado, a cat behavior expert with Rover, says that puzzle toys exercise both your cat’s mind and their bodies. “Food puzzles can be a great way to prevent boredom, increase exercise, and slow down fast eaters,” she says. “They may also prevent or help solve behavior problems that stem from boredom.”
Truly excessive licking that does not respond to any of these solutions may be a symptom of an underlying medical issue. Some issues, such as pica, can look like licking or sucking but results from your cat may ingesting things she shouldn’t. Check with your veterinarian. Once medical issues are ruled out, consult a cat behaviorist if the behavior continues.