- Many cats lick their owners, and this licking generally doesn’t mean anything unusual.
- Cats might lick to bond, “claim” you, get attention, or because they think you need a good grooming.
- Some cats lick excessively when stressed, so if you notice other unusual behaviors, talk to your vet.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
Many cat owners have felt the sandpapery swipe of their pet’s tongue. With the first lick, you might rejoice that you’ve won your furry friend’s attention. After a minute, it’s still cute, but your skin might start to feel a little too exfoliated. As your cat keeps licking, you might begin to wonder: What’s going on with my cat?
Your cat is probably just, well, being a cat. Cats lick their humans for a few reasons, most of which are fairly typical to cats — in other words, nothing to be concerned about.
Excessive licking, though, could suggest an underlying issue, so it may be something to investigate with the help of your veterinarian. The list below can help you start sleuthing out why your cat won’t stop licking you.
1. They’re marking their territory
Cats, of course, don’t use padlocks, name tags, or post-it notes to claim objects as their own. Instead, they use scent glands in their cheeks, feet, and tails to mark things with their unique smell. Your cat may mark the boundaries of their living space, a favorite scratching post, or their human companions.
“Cats lick their owners to mark them as theirs,” says Lovelia Horn, animal rescuer and owner of Every Creature Counts. “Even if the cat is not your pet, they will still mark you with their saliva, as it shows that they consider you part of their territory.”
Licking is one of the ways cats spread their scent. They may also rub their bodies against you or nuzzle you with their cheeks. Since your cat’s sense of smell is 14 times more powerful than yours, you likely won’t smell the scent they leave. But to your furry friend, you smell great because you smell like them.
2. They’re grooming you
Cat tongues aren’t just for tasting kibble. They’re also powerful grooming tools. Cat tongues are embedded with tiny, hard spines called papillae. As your cat’s tongue sweeps across their coat, these hook-shaped spines catch onto strands of fur and become an all-natural detangling brush as their saliva helps wash away dirt.
Much like human toddlers, kittens aren’t terribly good at keeping themselves clean. They need their mother to lick them and show them how it’s done. Your cat, most likely, has never seen you lick yourself clean, so it’s possible they mistakenly believe you need a lesson in basic hygiene.
“Cats are master groomers and spend a good portion of their day grooming themselves. Sometimes, this grooming behavior can extend to social partners, including humans,” says Crista Coppola, CAAB, certified animal behaviorist at SeniorTailWaggers.
3. They were weaned too early
Separating kittens too early can cause long-term stress, though experts disagree on what counts as “too early.” The American Veterinary Medical Association suggests a kitten should be around 8 weeks old before they move to a new home.
Other groups, like the Pleasant Plains Animal Hospital in New York, recommend kittens be 12 to 14 weeks old. Regardless, kittens in the wild stay close to their mother for four months — and separating them earlier may cause the kitten distress.
One of the ways kittens work through stress is by kneading, licking, or sucking on soft things nearby. “Soft things” might include wool or cloth, but kittens might also put their mouths around a finger or earlobe. This behavior, sometimes called wool-sucking, mimics nursing.
In a 2017 study of over 5,700 cats, nearly one-third had a history of wool-sucking behavior. The later a cat was weaned, the less likely they were to engage in anxious wool-sucking. Cats weaned later in life were also less likely to engage in excessive grooming.
4. They want your attention
If a cat wants to alert you to an issue, scraping their wet tongue across your skin often does the trick. Maybe they want to cuddle, or they’re letting you know it’s time to clean the
. Generally, though, the issue is a minor one.
- Refusing food
- Having accidents outside the litter box
Cats are especially likely to need comfort during times of major change, such as moving to a new house or adding a new pet to the family.
Getting licked by your cat generally isn’t a cause for alarm. In fact, it’s often a sign of healthy bonding.
But if your cat is licking you much more than usual or shows other concerning or unusual behaviors, it’s possible the licking could have another cause, such as anxiety or stress. Your veterinarian can offer more guidance on narrowing down possible triggers, plus tips on helping reduce your cat’s stress.