Do Cats Really Love You When They Lick You?

What Does It Mean When Cats Lick Humans?

When cats lick and gently nibble on humans, it’s often a sign of affection, bonding, and trust. Mother cats lick their kittens as a natural part of grooming, so when your cat licks you, they are treating you like one of their own. It mimics the maternal grooming they received as kittens. Licking helps facilitate bonding and socialization between cats and their owners.

Licking is also part of regular feline grooming rituals. Cats dedicate much time to self-grooming and licking humans is an extension of that instinct. Their tongues deposit pheromones when licking, claiming you as their own. So licking is a way for cats to be social and show they are comfortable interacting with you.

According to PetMD, “When cats lick each other…they are engaging in bonding behaviors that have roots back to kittenhood. Kittens lick their mother’s face and body as a way to encourage nursing. Cats continue to lick each other in adulthood as a way to encourage close social bonds.” So licking is deeply rooted social behavior for cats.

Love or Grooming?

Cats lick for both bonding and grooming reasons (https://www.pumpkin.care/blog/why-does-cat-lick-me/). Licking is an important social behavior for cats. Mother cats lick their kittens to groom them and strengthen their bond. This behavior continues into adulthood as cats will lick other cats they are close with for grooming and as a sign of affection.

Cats display this same licking behavior with their human owners. A cat’s licks are a way to create a social bond and show affection, similar to nuzzling or purring (https://www.petmd.com/cat/behavior/evr_ct_why-does-my-cat-lick-me). The scratchy cat tongue also helps remove dead hair and keeps their human’s skin and hair clean, serving a grooming function. So both love and grooming motivations are at play when a cat licks their beloved human.

Sign of Affection

Many cat owners interpret licking behavior as a sign of affection. For cats, licking behavior releases endorphins in them. Endorphins induce feelings of pleasure, similar to the “runner’s high” humans experience [1]. Licking is also a way for cats to show acceptance and bonding with their human companions. It’s like their version of giving kisses. Cats often lick as a social grooming behavior on other cats they have bonded with. When your cat licks you, it likely means they have accepted you as a member of their social group.

Grooming Ritual

One of the main reasons cats lick humans is as part of their natural grooming behavior. For cats, licking helps clean themselves and other cats in their colony. When a cat licks a human, they are essentially trying to groom us as if we were another cat.

Cats especially like to lick human hands and fingers that may have traces of food or odor on them. By licking our hands, cats are trying to remove any remaining bits of food, oils, or smells. It’s their way of cleaning us up with their scratchy little tongues.

Another reason cats lick humans is to deposit pheromones on us. As cats groom each other, they deposit pheromones from glands in their mouths onto the other cat’s fur. This helps mark that cat as part of their social group. When cats lick humans, they are marking us with their scents in a similar way.[1]

Mimicking Nursing

A cat’s licking behavior often harkens back to its time as a kitten. When kittens are very young, they lick their mother’s belly to stimulate milk production and encourage her to nurse them. This licking behavior becomes ingrained early on.

According to PetMD, “If a kitten is very relaxed or comfortable, kneading behavior usually occurs—often followed by suckling behavior. Both are normal and seem to be associated with contentment.”

Even in adulthood, a cat may lick or suckle on soft materials like blankets to soothe itself and simulate the comforts of nursing. As PetMD explains, this kneading and suckling behavior reminds the cat of its relaxing, nurturing time with its mother.

So when your cat licks you, it may be trying to return to the same comfort and contentment it felt in early life. The licking represents a close bond and its desire to nurture you as its “parent” figure.

When Should You Worry?

Excessive licking in cats can sometimes be a sign of an underlying issue. According to research from Cornell University[1], excessive licking that leads to hair loss or produces large numbers of hairballs is abnormal behavior for cats.

Excessive licking or overgrooming can signal that a cat is feeling stressed or anxious. Environmental factors like moving to a new home, a new pet in the house, or changes to their routine can trigger stress licking. Skin irritations or allergies may also cause cats to lick repeatedly at itchy spots. It’s a good idea to check your cat thoroughly for fleas, rashes, or other skin issues if they are licking excessively.

If your cat’s overgrooming behavior comes on suddenly, or they lick specific spots on their body bald, take them to the vet for an examination. This excessive licking likely signals an underlying medical issue or allergy that requires treatment.

Encouraging Positive Licking

Positive interactions and bond-building moments can encourage a cat’s affections and dampen excessive neediness. Be sure to reward desired behaviors like gentle licks or nuzzles with treats, pets, and verbal praise. Cats often lick trusted humans as a sign of care – make it clear this is appreciated. Spend quality one-on-one time together through play, lap time, or quiet pets and massages. This social bonding reinforces you are an important companion to your cat.

Additionally, keep hands clean and moisturized if your cat frequently grooms human hands and fingers. Cats tend to lick dirty hands or salt and oil buildup, so maintaining good hygiene invites grooming licks. Think of it as your cat returning your caring touch.

Discouraging Excessive Licking

While some licking behavior is normal for cats, excessive licking can be a sign of stress or skin irritation. Here are some tips to discourage overgrooming:

Distract your cat with interactive toys when you notice excessive licking. Laser pointers, feather wands, and treat-dispensing puzzles can shift their focus to playtime. Provide at least 20-30 minutes of active playtime per day.

Check for potential sources of stress or anxiety, like changes to their environment or new pets. Reduce stressors when possible and make sure litter boxes, food, and water are easily accessible.

Inspect your cat’s skin for signs of irritation, allergies, or parasites that may be causing discomfort. Consult your veterinarian if you suspect a medical issue.

Provide alternative grooming tools like scratching posts, brushing gloves, and catnip to satisfy scratching and rubbing urges in a healthier way.

Overall, redirect excessive grooming urges with enrichment and affection. But if overgrooming persists, seek veterinary advice to rule out underlying medical causes.

Safety First

While cat licks are generally safe, there are a few precautions humans should take:

Don’t let your cat lick open wounds on your skin. Cat saliva contains bacteria that can cause infection if introduced into the bloodstream through a cut or scratch. If your cat tries to lick an open sore, gently discourage them.

Wash your hands after prolonged licking sessions. Though rare, some people can develop minor skin infections from bacteria in cat saliva. Washing hands minimizes any risk.

Monitor small children when interacting with cats. Young kids are more vulnerable to infection and may accidentally get scratched while playing. Supervise children under 5 closely when petting cats.

As long as you take basic precautions, there is very little risk in letting your cat lick you. It’s one of the many ways cats show affection for their loved ones.

The Bottom Line

In general, when cats lick humans it’s a sign of affection and bonding. A cat’s light licks are like kisses that say “I love you” (Source: https://www.rd.com/article/why-do-cats-lick-you/). Cats have scent glands in their mouths, so licking deposits pheromones that mark you as their territory and part of their family and social group (Source: https://www.thesprucepets.com/why-does-my-cat-lick-me-551816).

However, excessive licking can also be a sign your cat is stressed or has a health issue like dental disease or allergies. In that case, look for and address the underlying cause (Source: https://www.quora.com/Why-do-some-cats-like-to-lick-me-is-it-affection).

Encourage positive, affectionate licking from your cat by spending quality bonding time together. But discourage excessive licking that could irritate skin or signal an underlying issue that needs veterinary attention.

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