Typically, when cats groom or lick their pet parents, it’s a sign of deep trust. While the nurturing behavior may comfort and warm the hearts of some, the sensation may feel rough and somewhat abrasive to others. Furthermore, some cats can really go overboard when it comes to licking, and it can even lead to a bite. If this has happened to you, then you are likely wondering, “Why does my cat lick me so much? Or why does my cat lick and then bite me? And how can I make it stop?”
What does it mean when my cat licks me?
When cats lick people, it can be for a variety of reasons.
- There is something interesting on your skin that tastes good to your cat. If you find that your cat licks your hands after you have been eating, they’re likely enjoying the delicious taste of ‘leftovers’ or anything left on your skin from a recent meal. But foods aren’t the only tastes that appeal to cats. You may find your cat licking you after a workout or when you’ve applied lotion because they like the taste of salty sweat or moisturizing oils on your skin.
- Your cat wants to groom you. In a group of cats, there is often one cat that takes on grooming responsibility for all the other cats. This role is called ‘allo-grooming,’ and it’s common among groups of cats, as well as when mother cats groom their young. It is considered a natural bonding feline behavior, so your cat may be signaling that you’re officially part of the family.
- Your cat is marking their territory. Even though we may not like to admit it, our cats consider us their property; and they will mark us to prove their point. Cats mark their territory in many ways, including scratching, rubbing scent glands in the cheek and tailbase on us, and, you guessed it, licking us. (They also spray to mark their territory but that is for another article!)
- Your cat wants your attention. Licking may also be simply an attention-seeking behavior. If you find your cat is licking you when they want petting, food, play, or to go outside, then it could be that licking is the most effective way for your cat to communicate that they want something from you.
- Your cat could be stressed or anxious. There are plenty of reasons your cat might be feeling stress — not getting along with another cat, moving to a new home, renovations, underlying pain or medical issues, visitors, or even when you suddenly and unexpectedly begin staying at home for months at a time! When cats lick you under these circumstances, it’s called displacement behavior. Oftentimes, cats that are stressed will not only lick their humans excessively, they will also over-groom themselves and create bald patches. In these cases, a trip to the veterinarian is required to determine the cause and address the issue.
- Your cat loves you. This is the best reason for licking. Kittens are licked by their mother when they are young, and many cats will continue this behavior into adulthood, licking other animals and people that they are bonded with to express love and connection.
When is cat licking a problem?
How much licking is too much licking, and are there any other dangers associated with cat licking?
The simple answer is that any amount of licking that annoys you or feels excessive is too much. And like any other problematic behavior, there are steps you can take to correct and minimize the behavior so you and your cat can live in harmony.
But because there are so many reasons why your cat may be licking you, it’s important to be aware of signs or situations that could indicate a larger issue, so you can get proper help. These include:
Licking that’s a problem for cats
- Licking plus over-grooming. If your cat isn’t just licking you more, but also grooming to the point of baldness or skin irritation, that’s a red flag indicating this isn’t just a sign of affection or even a bad habit. It’s a potential health risk that must be addressed.
- Excessive licking due to stress, boredom, or anxiety. It can be hard to tell what’s bugging your cat. But always start by exploring what environmental or situational triggers might be causing your cat to lick you more. Some issues — like competing with another cat for food or toys — can be easily remedied with a different setup. But others may require working with a behaviorist or your veterinarian to address the root cause.
- Licking that signals pain or an underlying health issue. When your cat suddenly starts licking you more, watch out for other signs or symptoms, such as impaired mobility or difficulty urinating. If you notice anything that would indicate an underlying health issue, visit your veterinarian right away.
Licking that’s a problem for others
- Licking that leads to biting. Biting as part of play is normal behavior for some cats, so your pet may think it’s okay to play that way with you. Or it may be your cat’s way of signaling they want you to stop petting them...or start playing with them. Until someone invents a cat translator, it’s best to discourage biting quickly with corrective measures to ‘nip’ this problem behavior in the bud.
- Licking that transmits disease. Although it’s very rare for cats to spread diseases to people, it can happen. And the risk is greater for those with immature or weaker immune systems. So take precautions if your lick-happy cat is around infants, the elderly, pregnant women, or anyone with a compromised immune system, whether due to disease or treatments that suppress immunity.
- Licking when a cat is fed a raw diet. Raw food diets are a growing trend in pet food, but the pathogens and parasites in raw food can also endanger those with weakened immunity.
How to stop your cat from licking you
If the licking is excessive or bothersome to you, there are things you can do to minimize and even halt the licking behavior.
- If your cat tends to over-lick you after you eat, sweat, or apply lotion, then make it a point to wash your skin before interacting with your kitty. That can help break the reinforcement cycle so it doesn’t become a habit.
- If your cat licks you to get food, play time, or attention, ignore the cat and get up and walk away. Do not reward your cat with what they want or you will reinforce the licking behavior. Instead, provide the desired things only when the cat doesn’t lick you. You can even teach a cat to sit before rewarding with whatever the cat wants!
- Redirect your cat’s licking to something else — a favorite toy, for example — when your cat starts licking you excessively, and praise your cat when they lick the toy.
- Provide other ways for your cat to express themself, including scratching posts and bunting combs.
- If your cat’s licking behavior is new, or your cat seems stressed, sick, has had other changes in behavior, alterations in appetite or elimination behavior, or is in pain for any reason, then consult with your local veterinarian. Many times, there is something going on that your veterinarian can remedy and reduce the unwanted licking behavior. If there is pain, your veterinarian can prescribe pain meds. If there is stress or anxiety, your veterinarian can give you advice on how to reduce both and prescribe anti-anxiety meds if necessary. If your cat checks out fine healthwise and the licking is still excessive, schedule a cat behaviorist consultation. You can also try over-the-counter solutions designed to reduce stress and anxiety in cats, such as pheromone sprays. But it’s always a good idea to consult your veterinarian first.
- If all else fails, your cat is totally healthy and just wayyyy too into licking you, spray bitter apple or Tabasco sauce or another yucky tasting (but still feline-safe!) substance on your skin. That way, when your cat goes to lick you and it doesn’t taste good, they will remember that for the future. If the behavior is cemented in your cat’s brain, you may have to do this more than once, but cats are generally smart and figure this out pretty fast.
What you shouldn’t do when your cat licks you is yell at your cat or overreact. This will create conflict in the relationship between you two, will escalate stress and anxiety and potentially make the situation worse.
Now you no longer need to wonder, “Why does my cat clean me?” With a little detective work on your part, you can get to the bottom of why your cat licks you, provide other ways for your cat to express love and connection, determine whether your cat needs some professional help, and, ultimately, if you want, reduce the licking while keeping the special bond you share with your cat.
Dr. Sarah Wooten is a small animal veterinarian and certified veterinary journalist. She has three human children and one fur child—a Goldendoodle named Alma. In her spare time, she enjoys skiing, SCUBA, and participating in triathlons.