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Why Do Cats Lick?

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Layne is an animal lover and grew up in a household full of rescued critters. She is a registered veterinary technician.

Why Do Cats Lick so Much?

You and your cat speak the same language. You love your cat and your cat loves you, but still you’re left wondering why your cat licks you so much. Is it affection, is your cat trying to groom you, or does your cat like how you taste? There are many reasons why your cat might be licking so much. They might even lick furniture in the house, floors, walls, toys (feather or soft toys), dead mice or birds, and all kinds of things that they find. Find out if your cat’s behavior is normal feline behavior or caused by something else like an underlying health condition.

10 Reasons Why Cats Lick

  1. Affection
  2. Instinct
  3. Anxiety and Boredom
  4. Territoriality
  5. Pica
  6. Grooming
  7. Tasting
  8. Health Issues
  9. Old Age
  10. Allergies
Cats licking each other affectionately.

Cats licking each other affectionately.

1. Affection

Why do cats lick their owners? When cats are kittens, the mother cat grooms them repeatedly with their tongue. It’s a sign of care and affection and it’s a way to keep kitten eyes clean and unmatted. Cat tongues are barbed and covered in hundreds of tiny papillae or spines that help with cleaning fur. It’s not uncommon for a bonded pair or littermates to groom each other, licking eachothe’s face, ear, fur, feat, and so on. It’s possible that your cat might be doing the same to you.

Why Does My Cat Lick Me?

Your companion might have learned to lick you out of a show of affection from their kitten days. It’s possible that your cat also tries to groom other cats in your household or dogs or other family members that you cohabitate with. While this can be cute in some ways, other animals and people might not like it. In addition, a cat’s mouth contains harmful bacteria. Your other cat or dog might get up and walk away as soon as the unwanted licking starts. As cute yet sad as this might seem, your other pets are actually establishing a healthy boundary, and you should, too.

Does My Cat Like the Way I Taste?

It’s possible that your cat likes the way you taste, and no, they are not plotting to kill you. If you notice your cat tries to lick you especially after exercise or working out, it’s possible that they are simply enjoying the salt on your skin. Try taking a shower first before settling down with them.

Is Cat Saliva Harmful to Humans?

The short answer is yes, cat saliva is harmful to humans. Cats host the several types of bacteria in their mouth including Pasteurella multocida, Staphylococcus, E-coli, and Salmonella, which all have zoonotic potential (can infect humans).

Should I Let My Cat Lick Me?

For people with compromised immune systems, open wounds, who are susceptible to infection, or have slow-healing wounds, do not let your cat lick your skin directly. It is known in human medicine that cat bites are no joke. This is because of two things: the bacteria found in cat saliva and their needle-point teeth. Their sharp, pointed teeth inoculate human skin via bite and create a narrow entry point which then closes off, trapping the wound and creating a perfect space for anaerobic bacteria to thrive.

Cats will lick things out of instinct.

Cats will lick things out of instinct.

2. Instinct

Cats are predators and their instincts are quite strong. Despite cat breeds being domesticated for several hundred years, they are still fairly predatory and wild. Any cat owner will know that they rule the house. They still retain quite a few instincts, whether that is hunting, chasing, trapping prey, or stalking (even you). When cats catch a mouse or bird as prey, they will play with it until it is dead. Sometimes, they sit down and lick the dead bird or mouse top to bottom until they get bored. In the wild, they would normally eat their kill, but house cats tend to have more leisure time and often kill things for entertainment. They will catch something, trap it, and lick it until there’s something better to do.

Why Does My Cat Bite Me and Then Lick Me?

Your cat might bite and lick you in the same way that he or she would play and interact with another cat. They might start out being sweet and playful and then dive in for a nip or two. While it can be cute, not everyone wants to be nipped when they go to pet your cat. You might consider withdrawing your hand or even avoid playing with your cat with your hands entirely. Opt for a feathered toy or a toy on a wand that does not involve cat-to-hand contact. The nips can be particularly harmful if your cat accidentally pierces skin (this is especially true for elderly adults and young kids or babies and sensitive people).

Your cat might be bored.

Your cat might be bored.

3. Anxiety and Boredom

Cats will exhibit strange behaviors when they are understimulated, bored, and anxious. Oftentimes, obsessive, compulsive licking can erupt first from boredom, then anxiety, and escalate to even hair loss and skin sores. Your cat might be over-grooming because they have nothing else to do. If they are understimulated, lack toys and affection, and more, they might turn to themselves and groom obsessively.

As for anxiety, cats can be anxious for several reasons. This might include changes in the house, the introduction of a new pet or person, the departure of a pet, person, or companion, hormonal issues, loud noises, stray cats outside, cat fights, too much scolding or discipline, or simply not having a safe and secure place to sleep or rest and retreat to.

Offer your cat a safe hideout, especially if they are shy. Consider covered cat beds and place them in a corner or tucked away somewhere between furniture where they feel they can really retreat. You might also consider trying Feliaway, which is a product that uses synthetic pheromones to communicate via the F3 facial pheromones cats use to rub up against objects to mark a space as “safe.” Follow all product instructions, of course.

Cat TV to Combat Boredom

4. Territoriality

Cats are territorial, and licking followed by headbutts and marking are common ways for them to claim you as their own. Your cat might be exhibiting this behavior if they feel challenged by other cats in the household, other pets in the household, and even other people in the household. If you recently moved into a new location, got new furniture, or even brought something small and new into the house, you will probably find that your cat feels a need to sniff, lick, and mark it. You can help your cat to feel more secure by taking something that they sleep on and distributing their scent around the house by using that object via scent transfer.

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Placing a hand towel for your cat to sleep on in their bed works just fine. After several days, take the towel and rub it across fabric furniture. This will help your cat to feel more secure because everywhere they go they will find their scent. If you live in a multi-cat household, you might consider purchasing the multi-cat Feliaway wall plugin product. This product dispurses pheromones into the air to lessen the tensions and anxiety around multi-cat households.

5. Pica

Pica is a compulsive disorder in which a human or animal is driven to eat things that offer no nutritional value. Pica can be especially dangerous because it often leads to GI upset and impactions which might require surgery. Your cat might first lick and then try eating things like litter, sand, dirt, gravel, string, carpet, fabric, cardboard, plastic, foam, and so forth. While cats are generally curious and will lick or eat things they shouldn’t, frequent and obsessive licking or consumption of the above mentioned is abnormal.

The psychopathology of pica is complex, but there are numerous causes for it in cats, including being weaned too young, nutritional deficiencies, stress, boredom, and other underlying medical issues. Talk to your veterinarian if your cat has a tendency to eat non-nutritional foods and pica-proof your house as best as you can until you get the expert answers that you need.

A cat grooming.

A cat grooming.

6. Grooming

Cats groom, no doubt, and they do it for nearly ¼ of their day or even longer than that. Some breeds and cats groom more than others, and some require help with grooming. If you have a long-haired cat like a Persian, for example, you need to be diligent about helping them to stay groomed and mat-free. It is not uncommon for cats to lick their paws, face, and clean themselves throughout the day and in between naps.

However, if your cat is grooming to the point of hair loss, this could be because of an obsessive-compulsive disorder, flea allergy, or boredom. In addition, cats that are obese have trouble cleaning themselves, especially of urine and feces, and should really be more carefully cared for by their owners. If your cat has trouble grooming due to size, talk about a safe way with your vet to address what is causing their obesity and help them lose weight.

7. Tasting

Cats love to taste things. Unlike dogs, they often don’t consume everything that they taste, but they will try things with their tongues and even smell things prior to consumption. Cats actually only have a few hundred taste buds (humans have around 9,000), but their sense of smell makes up for it.

According to NPR, cats are “sweet blind”—they don’t taste sweet things as well as other species and humans. They do taste sour, bitter, and salty flavors. In fact, pets can become addicted to salty flavors which can put that at risk of salt toxicity. While a few licks of your arm after a workout might appeal to your cat, don’t encourage this behavior. Also make sure to talk to your vet about what food your cat is on and make sure they are getting all important nutrients.

Persians need help grooming.

Persians need help grooming.

8. Health Issues

Cats are prone to health issues and licking might be an indication that they have a thyroid or hormonal disorder, a flea allergy, or perhaps they are in pain. Animals sometimes groom obsessively when they are actually experiencing discomfort in that region; it is not uncommon for them to maim themselves out of frustration from having to endure chronic pain. If the pain is joint related (arthritis and similar inflammation), they might chew obsessively or clean one spot over and over. This is also true of a nail bed injury.

Flea Allergies

Flea allergies are a huge issue in cats and can cause obsessive grooming, hair loss, and hot spots. Most owners like to claim that their cats don’t have fleas—“They are indoor only” or “I never see fleas on my cat.” Unfortunately, no matter what efforts you take and unless you are using flea treatment on the calendar dot regularly, most cats will host a flea or two. Flea allergy is actually triggered by the saliva of the flea; the proteins in the saliva of the flea triggers intense itching, thus your cat is forced to lick more and chew more. To resolve the issue, you must be diligent about using topical or oral flea meds.

As for hormonal disruption or metabolic disorders, hair loss and licking or itching can be triggered by such conditions. You will need to work with your veterinarian and preferably an internal medicine veterinary specialist to run diagnostics on your cat and get to the source of the issue.

9. Old Age

Senior cats might start exhibiting weird behavior due to cognitive decline, such as licking objects that don’t taste good (cardboard, plastic, wood, fabric), and this behavior might appear alongside other demonstrations of senility, like soiling themselves, sleeping more, or acting groggy and disoriented. Help your senior cat out by keeping them stimulated and offering them lots of affection. If you truly feel like your cat is on the decline, consider their quality of life or talk to your vet about ways you can deter obsessive licking if they are harming themselves, creating hot spots, or losing fur. You might even try new interactive toys or putting “cat TV” on for your companion (my cat loves it!) to keep them busy if they are indoor only.

Your cat might have a flea allergy.

Your cat might have a flea allergy.

10. Allergies

As mentioned, flea allergies trigger an excessive amount of licking, chewing, grooming and hair loss in cats. While it is easily treated if you are diligent about eradicating fleas from your home and from your cat, a more difficult trigger of licking is environmental or food allergies. Environmental allergies can be anything from outdoor pollen to dust mites or sensitivity to chemical sprays used in the house. You can talk to your vet about this hypothesis and discuss ways you can rule out such triggers—like cleaning more or investing in a nice HEPA filter. You might even keep your cat indoors during certain times of the season if they are allergic to pollen.

Food allergies are harder to treat but you can start by talking to your vet and putting your cat on a hypoallergenic diet. Hypoallergenic foods can be bought in major pet stores. If you are switching your cat over to a new food, do so gradually to avoid giving them an upset stomach, vomiting, and/or diarrhea. Food allergies trigger all kinds of skin flare ups which might force your cat to lick themselves obsessively in order to combat the discomfort.

While the list of 10 reasons why cats lick above is fairly comprehensive, there might be other reasons for your companion's behavior. Your veterinarian is always the best source for information regarding health issues and behavioral specialist recommendations. Licking, in general, might be quite innocent and simply be a sign of love and affection, but there can also be some more serious underlying reasons as mentioned. Best of luck investigating the cause of your cat's behavior.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2021 Laynie H

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