The Perils of Kitty Kisses. Can Cats Really Spread Germs Through Licks?

Why Does Your Cat Lick You?

Have you ever wondered why your cat insistently licks your face or hand when you’re petting them? That sandpaper-like tongue can feel like sweet kitty kisses or irritating scratchy licks. Either way, this common feline behavior has several possible explanations that provide insight into the mind of your favorite furry friend.

In this article, we’ll explore the reasons behind your cat’s licking behavior. We’ll cover how it relates to grooming, bonding, communication, and more. You’ll also learn when excessive licking may indicate a health problem requiring veterinary attention. By better understanding why cats lick humans, you can strengthen your relationship with your pet and avoid potential risks.

Whether you find it an endearing or perplexing behavior, discovering the motivation behind your cat’s licks will give you a deeper appreciation for your feline companion. Let’s dig into the details behind this instinctive yet complex interaction between cats and their owners.

Why Cats Lick

Cats lick for a variety of reasons, many of which are perfectly normal feline behaviors. Some of the main reasons cats lick include:

Grooming – Cats lick themselves to clean and groom their fur. Their tongues are covered in tiny, backward-facing spines called papillae which act as a brush to remove loose hair and distribute natural oils. Excessive self-grooming can indicate skin irritation or parasites like fleas.1

Affection – Licking is a social bonding behavior for cats. Mother cats lick their kittens as a form of comfort and care. Grown cats may lick their owners or other cats they have bonded with to show affection, trust, and friendship.2

Curiosity – Cats have an excellent sense of smell and lick things to gather taste and scent information. Licking new objects is a natural feline tendency to explore their environment.

Stress relief – Grooming releases endorphins that can help cats feel relaxed and calm. Excessive licking can be a self-soothing behavior for anxiety, pain, or illness.

Health Risks

Cats can harbor bacteria and parasites in their mouths that may be harmful to humans. Some potential health risks from a cat licking a person’s mouth include:

Bacteria and infections: Cat saliva contains bacteria such as Pasteurella multocida and Capnocytophaga canimorsus, which can cause infections if introduced into the bloodstream through a bite or scratch. These bacteria are more likely to infect immunocompromised individuals, but may cause local infections in healthy people as well (PetMD, 2021).

Parasites: Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite cats may harbor, causes toxoplasmosis. Although rare, toxoplasmosis can also be transmitted through ingestion of cat feces or saliva. It may lead to flu-like symptoms in healthy adults but can be dangerous for pregnant women and immunocompromised individuals (PetHelpful, 2023).

Allergies: Some people may experience an allergic reaction from proteins in cat saliva. Symptoms of cat saliva allergies include redness, itching, and swelling where the cat has licked (Cosmopolitan, 2015).


Toxoplasmosis is caused by the Toxoplasma gondii parasite. Cats are the definitive host for this parasite, meaning the parasite can reproduce sexually only inside cats. The parasite is shed in feces from infected cats. While toxoplasmosis is usually harmless in healthy humans, it can cause serious complications for pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems (Cornell Feline Health Center).

For pregnant women, toxoplasmosis infection can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, or severe illness in the newborn. Those with compromised immune systems are also at risk of more severe symptoms if infected. However, it’s unlikely to contract toxoplasmosis just by touching an infected cat, as they don’t carry the parasite on their fur. The main risks come from accidentally ingesting feces from infected cats, either through poor hygiene or eating contaminated foods (

Cat Scratch Fever

Cat scratch fever is caused by a bacteria called Bartonella henselae. This bacteria is carried in the saliva of infected cats and can be transmitted to humans through scratches, bites, or even just contact with saliva. According to the CDC, cat scratch disease is usually a mild illness that resolves on its own [1].

The infected area may appear swollen and red with round, raised lesions and can have pus. Other symptoms can include fever, headache, poor appetite, and fatigue. Lymph nodes near the original scratch or bite can become swollen, tender, and painful [2].

While cat scratch fever is generally mild, it can become serious in some cases. Complications are rare but can include encephalopathy, endocarditis, and osteomyelitis. People with weakened immune systems are at higher risk for complications. Most healthy people recover fully within a few months [2].


Allergies to cats are primarily caused by a protein called Fel d 1, which is found in cat saliva, skin, and urine (1). When a cat licks, grooms, or scratches, it spreads this allergen onto its fur and into the surrounding environment. Allergic reactions occur when people come into contact with the saliva on the cat’s fur.

Common symptoms of cat saliva allergies include sneezing, itchy and watery eyes, congestion, coughing, rashes, and hives. Asthma attacks may also occur in people with asthma. Symptoms typically begin within minutes to hours after exposure and can persist as long as the allergen remains in contact with the person (2).

Treatments include medications like antihistamines and nasal steroids to control symptoms, as well as allergy shots to gradually make the immune system less sensitive. Keeping the cat out of bedrooms and frequently vacuuming and washing bedding can also help reduce exposure to allergens. In severe cases, finding the cat a new home may be necessary (3).


Cats can carry bacteria and parasites in their mouths that can be harmful to humans, so it’s important to take precautions when a cat licks your mouth or face.

The main precaution is to avoid mouth contact with cats as much as possible. If your cat tries to lick your lips or inside your mouth, gently pull your head back or turn it to the side. You can also gently hold your cat’s head and redirect them. Try not to startle or upset your cat, but be firm in blocking mouth-to-mouth contact.

It’s also crucial to wash your hands and face thoroughly after petting or playing with cats. Use soap and warm water, scrubbing for at least 20 seconds. This removes saliva, dander, and any germs the cat deposited on your skin.

Routine veterinary care is vital for cats, including keeping their vaccines up to date. Wellness exams allow vets to check cats for parasites and other conditions. Treating any illnesses your cat has reduces what could spread to humans.


While cat licking can show affection, there are other ways for cats to bond and interact that are safer and more hygienic. Some alternatives to encourage affection without licking include:

Petting and brushing are great ways to bond and show affection. Most cats love being petted in areas like under the chin, cheeks, base of the tail, and behind the ears. Brushing helps remove loose hair and allows owners to check for skin irregularities. The rhythmic motion can relax and comfort cats.

Interactive toys allow cats to play with their owners. Toys like wands with feather attachments allow cats to act on their natural prey drive. Puzzle toys also stimulate a cat’s natural curiosity and intelligence. Playtime is a bonding activity for both cat and owner.

Treats are another way to positively interact without licking. Giving treats helps reinforce good behavior and forms positive associations. Cats also see treats as gifts and signs of affection from their owners.

There are other affectionate behaviors like bunting (rubbing on owners), kneading, purring, and gentle nibbling that allow cats to demonstrate fondness. Providing alternatives helps redirect licking urges into safer bonding activities.

When to Seek Help

In some cases, a cat’s licking behavior may require medical intervention. According to the Cornell Feline Health Center, you should contact your veterinarian if the licking is excessive or leads to hair loss or wounds [1].

Signs to watch out for include:

  • Persistent infections in the licked area
  • Severe allergic reactions, such as hives or facial swelling
  • Concerns for immunocompromised individuals, who are more susceptible to infections from a cat’s saliva

It’s important to contact your veterinarian promptly if you notice any of these issues, as they may require medical treatment for your cat and special precautions for vulnerable individuals.


In summary, occasional cat licking of a human’s mouth or face is usually not cause for concern. Cats lick as a grooming behavior and to show affection. However, excessive licking can indicate a health issue for the cat. There are also some risks to humans, such as toxoplasmosis, cat scratch fever, and allergies. Precautions like washing hands and avoiding mouth contact can reduce the risks. Seek medical help if any concerning symptoms appear after a cat licks your mouth. With proper care and precautions, cat owners can safely enjoy their affectionate felines.

In closing, cat licking is normal cat behavior but should be monitored for any concerning changes. While rare, there are some health risks to be aware of. Overall, occasional licks from a family cat are generally safe with basic hygiene and care.

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