The Mystery of Why Cats Lick Us Revealed

Introduction

Cat owners often wonder why their feline friends lick them. It’s a common behavior that many cats engage in, and it can seem peculiar to humans. Though licking may appear strange to us, it’s completely natural behavior for cats. Understanding the reasons behind this instinctual grooming behavior can help cat owners better interpret their pet’s actions.

Grooming Behavior in Cats

Cats are fastidious groomers and dedicate a significant portion of their day to cleaning and caring for their coats. Cats lick themselves to distribute natural oils, clean their fur, remove loose hairs, and maintain proper hygiene (source). Their barbed tongues act like a comb or brush to smooth fur and stimulate blood circulation. Grooming also enables cats to monitor their health by checking for parasites, skin irritations, or other abnormalities. In addition to self-grooming, cats will often groom each other as a social bonding behavior. Allogrooming, or grooming between cats, reinforces familial connections and social hierarchies within groups of felines (source). Whether licking themselves or another cat, grooming is instinctual behavior essential to a cat’s comfort and wellbeing.

Maternal Instincts

Mother cats lick their kittens for several reasons related to maternal care and bonding.

Grooming is a key aspect of kitten care. Mother cats use their rough tongues to lick dirt, debris, and fleas off their kittens’ coats, keeping them clean and healthy (Source). This stimulates circulation and removes loose hair to help the kittens’ coats grow in properly.

Licking also encourages urination and defecation in newborn kittens who cannot yet eliminate on their own. The mother’s licking stimulates their bowels and bladders to help them go to the bathroom.

Furthermore, maternal licking serves as bonding time between a mother cat and her kittens. The grooming helps the kittens feel comforted and cared for. It strengthens the maternal bond critical for the kittens’ healthy development (Source).

Scent Marking

Cats have scent glands in their mouths that produce pheromones. When a cat licks you, it is depositing these pheromones onto your skin in a behavior known as scent marking (1). This allows the cat to mark you as part of its territory and group. It is a very typical social bonding activity for cats to groom and lick each other as a way to mingle scents (2).

Cats are very scent oriented animals. By licking a person, a cat is mingling its scent with yours, marking you as “theirs”. The more a cat licks and rubs against you, the more they are claiming you as a member of their group or family. It’s a sign that the cat feels bonded with you and wants to reinforce that bond through scent (3).

In addition to depositing scent, licking serves as “grooming” behavior for cats. They lick themselves as well as others in their group as part of social bonding. So licks can also be a sign of affection during social interactions.

Sources:
(1) https://www.purrinlot.com/scent_marking.htm
(2) https://www.quora.com/Do-cats-Felis-silvestris-lick-other-cats%E2%80%99-scent-marks-in-order-to-get-a-better-%E2%80%9Cpicture%E2%80%9D-of-the-scent-owner
(3) https://www.uk.sheba.com/blog/bonding-care/why-do-cats-lick-you-what-does-it-mean

Showing Affection

One of the main reasons cats lick humans is as a sign of affection. Licking is not only a grooming behavior for cats, but also an important social bonding mechanism. When a mother cat licks her kittens, she is showing love and caring for her babies. This maternal instinct remains in adult cats, and they will replicate this nurturing behavior with their human owners as a way to show their own affection and bond with us. According to experts, when a cat licks you gently, it’s almost always a sign that they love you and want to create a closer social connection [1]. So next time your cat licks your hand, face, or any other body part, it’s likely their way of saying “I love you”! This affectionate licking behavior is not exclusive to only certain cats either – studies show that most cats will lick their owners as a display of attachment [2].

Medical Reasons

Some cats lick their owners as a way to “heal” or clean perceived wounds, even if there is no wound present. This maternal instinct of caring for others is commonly seen in mother cats who lick their kittens to clean them. The origins of this behavior go back to cats’ ancestral wild roots where the mother cat needed to frequently clean her kittens to keep them free from bacteria or infections that could be life-threatening. According to The Wildest, “Your cat sees you as family and will treat you like another cat or kitten” (source).

So if your cat starts excessively licking a certain spot on your body, they may think you have a cut or sore there that needs cleaning. Cats have a strong sense of smell and may pick up on even invisible or internal issues. Of course, constant licking can be irritating, so try gently discouraging the behavior or seeing a vet to rule out any medical problems if it persists.

Attention Seeking

Another common reason cats lick their owners is to get attention or communicate a need. According to 6 Reasons Why Your Cat Licks You, cats may lick when they want food, playtime, petting, or other forms of interaction. If your cat tends to lick you right before mealtime or when you get home, they are likely trying to tell you something or request your attention. The licking triggers a response from you, which reinforces the behavior.

Cats also lick for attention when they feel neglected or want you to keep petting them. As social creatures, cats desire affection and interaction with their owners. The licking provides sensory stimulation for both parties. However, too much licking solely for attention-seeking purposes can become problematic. Try distraction with toys or scheduling regular playtime to decrease excessive licking habits.

Salt and Sweat

Many cats seem particularly fond of licking human feet and toes. One reason for this behavior is that cats enjoy the taste of salt on human skin. Cat tongues have a special structure that allows them to detect and enjoy the taste of salt much more than humans can.

Human feet also tend to sweat more than other areas of skin, especially in warmer environments. The sweat on our feet contains salt, minerals, and amino acids that cats find appealing. Licking salty sweat from feet and toes is an enjoyable sensation for cats thanks to their superior ability to taste salt.1

Some researchers speculate that the salty flavor of human sweat and skin secretions may even be mildly addictive to cats. This may explain why some cats persistently lick the same person’s feet over and over again.

If your cat is obsessively licking your feet, especially in the hot summer months, it is likely they are enjoying the salty taste of your sweat. While harmless, excessive foot licking can be annoying for some owners. Reducing sweat and vigorously drying feet after bathing can help curb this habit.

Conclusion

In conclusion, cats lick humans for several main reasons. Grooming behaviors are innate in cats and they lick humans as part of maternal instincts or to show affection. Cats also lick for medical reasons like healing wounds or if they have a feline health condition. Attention-seeking is another reason cats lick, especially if they want food or care from their owner. Cats can also be attracted to the salt in human sweat when they lick. While licking behaviors can seem mysterious to us, they stem from natural cat instincts and their close bonds with humans.

References

Landsberg G, Hunthausen W, Ackerman L. 2013. Feline scratching and destruction and the effects of declawing. In: Landsberg GM, Hunthausen W, Ackerman L, editors. Handbook of behavior problems of the dog and cat. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Saunders. p 219-34.

Mertens C. 2002. Feline destruction of property. In: Horwitz DF, Mills DS, Heath S, editors. BSAVA manual of canine and feline behavioural medicine. Gloucester: BSAVA Publications. p 195-203.

Seibert LM, Landsberg GM. 2008. Diagnosis and management of patients presenting with problem behaviors. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract. 38:937-50.

Soennichsen S, Chamove AS. 2002. Responses of cats to petting by humans. Anthrozoos. 15:258-67.

Vitale Shreve KR, Udell MA. 2015. What’s inside your cat’s head? A review of cat (Felis silvestris catus) cognition research past, present and future. Anim Cogn. 18:1195-206.

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