Lip Service: Cat Licking You Like Crazy?

A kiss isn’t just a kiss.

by Jodi Helmer
March 31, 2021
white and orange cat licking a person's hand

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Watching your cat doing yoga all day licking, licking, licking is one thing, but what does it mean when they turn their tongue on you? “Grooming is a social activity for cats,” says Dr. Erin Katribe, DVM. “It’s an expression of comfort and companionship.” So unless you just took your hand out a Cheetos bag, it usually means your cat is showing you some love.

Licking is also a way in which cats mark their territories — each time your cat licks you, they leave their scent behind to let the rest of the feline kingdom know this is my human. “There is a scent component to saliva that cats can probably detect,” Katribe says. Before you let your cat lick you, consider that some sunscreens and topical medications, like hormone or steroid creams, can be toxic to cats if ingested. So licking should be off limits if you use these products, at least until they are washed off.

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Your cat could also be trying to get your attention — their sandpaper-like tongues are not exactly designed for soft kisses. Katribe equates licking to other attention-getting behaviors like rubbing up against you or winding between your feet. It’s up to you to figure out whether your cat wants affection, dinner, or has a more pressing concern, like pain. That’s right, licking (you, themselves, or inanimate objects) can be a common sign of pain in cats, so if your cat is still going at it even after you offered them love and kibble, it’s worth calling your vet.

Quarantine may be a familiar state for your cat, but change can still stress them out. Grooming is supposed to be a soothing behavior for cats so if it becomes excessive or obsessive — particularly after a shift in their environment, diet, or living situation — this behavior could be a cortisol-fueled coping mechanism and should be addressed before it spirals into OCD. “I could envision a cat using the behavior similarly to how they might overgroom themselves,” Katribe says. “Any time licking seems excessive or is causing skin injuries, it could be problematic, and if the behavior continues after the stressor is removed, it should be cause for concern.” All that said, Katribe assures us that most of the time, licking is actually a sign of affection, so enjoy the sweet gesture.

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Jodi Helmer

Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina-based freelance writer who shares her home with an embarrassing number of rescue dogs and relies on four feral cats to patrol the barn. When she isn’t refilling food and water dishes, Jodi writes about animals for Scientific American, Sierra, WebMD, AKC Family Dog, Living the Country Life, and Out Here.