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Wednesday, September 1, 2021

The reason cats lick their owners is not because they think you’re tasty or need a wash. It’s more likely that they want to form a close bond

If you’ve ever felt your cat’s rough, sandpaper-like tongue on your skin, you may be wondering why cats sometimes lick their human owners.

black-and-white cat licking its lips with tongue sticking out

It’s probably not because you taste like their favourite meal, or that they think you’re particularly unclean. There are actually a few possible reasons why your cat licks you, and most of them are signs of affection.

4 reasons why cats lick their owners

1. Bonding

Cats are usually quite happy to just groom themselves, using their rough tongue to remove any dirt and excess fur from their body. However, if they’re in the same social group as another cat, they may lend a helping tongue and groom each other, known as allogrooming. This helps them to form a close bond, and it can sometimes happen across species too. So, if your cat starts licking you while you’re cuddled up together, it could be that they’re trying to show affection and make friends with you. Don’t think this means they want you to lick them back though, they’d much prefer you use a brush to groom their fur.

ginger tabby cat licking the head of brown tabby cat

2. Sharing scent 

Another reason cats sometimes lick other cats they’re bonded with is so that they can share their scent, transferring their saliva to make the other cat smell more familiar. This helps them tell, with a simple sniff, that the other cat is part of their social group and can therefore be trusted. By licking you, your cat could simply be marking you as safe and letting you know you’re part of the family.

3. It feels good 

As well as helping cats keep themselves clean, the act of licking also causes the release of ‘feel good’ hormones, called endorphins, in their brains. This gives them a natural ‘high’ so it’s understandable that they may want to do it at every opportunity, even if that means licking you instead of themselves.

grey cat licking front paw

4. They’re anxious or stressed 

While most of the time a casual lick from your feline friend is nothing to worry about, occasionally it can be a sign that they’re not happy. If they’re licking you excessively then they could be feeling stressed or anxious, so take them to a vet to see if they can help identify a cause. Cats will also sometimes lick people when they are being handled but don’t want to be, and this can often be quickly followed by biting or scratching if the handling continues. If your cat is swishing or flicking their tale, or if their ears are pinned back, leave them alone to avoid causing them further stress.

How to get your cat to stop licking you

If you want to discourage your cat from licking you, then it’s important not to push them away or punish them for doing it. They won’t understand what they’ve done wrong and will likely become stressed, which can lead to more problem behaviours. Instead, when your cat starts licking you, try distracting them with something else they enjoy, such as grooming them with a brush or playing with their favourite toy. This will help them to continue bonding with you while protecting your skin from their sandpaper-like tongue.

For more information about cat behaviour, visit www.cats.org.uk/behaviour

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