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Your Cat Likes to Lick You — Is That Weird?

Hey, everybody’s got their thing.

by Jodi Helmer
Updated August 31, 2022
kittens licking woman's hand
Nabi Tang / Stocksy

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Your cat likes to keep it clean. They might not be clean in the sense that they don’t curse; your cat probably internally says at least five explicit things to you before you even get out of bed in the morning. They’re clean in the sense that all day they sit in their precious sun spot and give themselves a bath with their little sandpaper tongue.

Sometimes, you swear they’re just doing that so they can ignore you some more. And then...the tongue makes its way over to you. Your cat is giving you a sandpaper bath on your arm or leg or — if there’s anything interesting there — face. Regardless of whether you’re into this particular action from your feline, why do they do it?

1. They’re showing you some love by grooming 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.

2. They could be marking their territory

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.

3. They may be trying to get your attention

Your cat could also be trying to get your attention — their sandpaper-like tongues are not exactly designed for soft kisses. Dr. 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.

4. It could be a coping mechanism

Your cat might act like they’re the one in control, but change can really 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,” Dr. 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, Dr. Katribe assures us that most of the time, licking is actually a sign of affection, so enjoy the sweet gesture. But before you let your cat lick you, consider that some sunscreens and topical medications, such as hormone or steroid creams, can be toxic to cats if ingested. Licking should be off limits if you use these products, at least until they are fully washed off.

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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.