By John Gilpatrick
A cat’s tongue is one of her most versatile body parts.
“It’s covered with tiny little barbs that act as both a comb for when she's grooming herself and as a rasp for getting all those little meaty bits off bones or food bowls,” says Marci Koski, a certified feline behavior and training consultant and owner of Feline Behavior Solutions in Washington State.
That’s why one of your cat’s favorite daily activities is licking. And the behavior is not limited to just licking herself or her food bowl. “Cotton, plastic, bedding, and rubber are common materials cats will lick,” says Dr. Megan Maxwell, a certified applied animal behaviorist and owner of Pet Behavior Change in Virginia. “Unfortunately, some of this licking can be problematic when it leads to chewing and then ingestion of these materials.”
Safety isn’t necessarily an issue with another one of your cat’s favorite targets: you. There are many reasons why cats like to lick their owners, but it’s generally thought of as a positive behavior. “I usually take my cats’ licking as a compliment,” Koski says.
While it may be a form of flattery, cat licking still has the potential to become excessive or tiresome. It’s important to understand the specific reasons behind this feline behavior, so you can appropriately divert your cat’s attention when your arm needs a break. Here are the four most common reasons why your cat licks you.
They Want Attention
Maxwell says she has worked with many owners whose cats will lick or even bite them to get their attention. Sometimes, this might mean they want to play or be pet, but in other cases, it can be a sign of something more serious like stress or anxiety.
While stress-induced licking is more commonly associated with a cat grooming herself, Koski says that excessive licking that persists after a stressor has been removed from a cat’s environment is a cause for concern. If you find your cat licking you, some object, or herself to the point that it’s interfering with daily life, you should first speak with your veterinarian to rule out any medical problems that might be to blame. If your cat gets a clean bill of health, a certified animal behaviorist can help you address the issue quickly.
They’re 'Cleaning' You
Yes, the idea that an arm covered in cat saliva is “clean” doesn’t totally compute for us, but for a cat, it’s an important behavior that promotes bonding.
“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 says. “Usually, the members of the group are related to each other, so licking a human may be the cat's attempt to include you as part of her group.”
They Taste Something Interesting
Spill something on your arm? Don’t be surprised to find Fluffy sidling up next to you to get a taste.
Sometimes, it doesn’t take a spill for this to hold true, however. Koski says cats may enjoy licking the salt that builds up on your skin naturally.
They’re Showing You Affection
“Social grooming by licking is an important affectionate behavior in cats, and licking can be a sign of affection between cats and between a cat and a human,” Maxwell says.
She adds that licking (both other cats or their human owners) is often a sign that a cat is calm. But because anxiety can also be a cause for licking, it’s important to pay close attention to the context surrounding the behavior and other notable things (particularly anything that’s changed) in your cat’s environment.
How to Get Your Cat to Stop Licking You
For a behavior that’s often about love and emotional closeness, it’s tricky to tell your cat to stop without jeopardizing your relationship.
Koski says some people will attempt to prevent the behavior altogether by applying something that tastes bad to cats to their own skin. The idea is that the cat won’t like the taste and won’t lick you in the future. She says it can have an undesired effect, however, and the cat may begin to associate the unpleasant experience with you in a more general way, which can be problematic. The same holds true for any type of punishment that you might dole out in response to licking.
“If you feel like your cat is licking you excessively, the best thing you can do is redirect her actions,” Koski says. “I have a cat who loves snuggling with me and licking my face. What I'll typically do is simply move my face away from him and either offer my head to nuzzle against or I will pet him so that he just enjoys the petting and stops licking.”
If that doesn’t work, Koski recommends simply walking away when licking becomes excessive, which causes the cat to associate licking you with you disappearing. With time and consistency, your cat should learn that you are a lick-free zone.