Do Cats Lick You When They Are Stressed?

What is stress in cats?

Stress in cats occurs when a cat faces situations that overwhelm its normal coping abilities, triggering the fight-or-flight response. This leads to the release of hormones like cortisol that cause physical and behavioral changes (Blue Cross, 2022).

Common causes of stress in cats include changes in environment, routines, diet, or relationships. Introducing a new pet, moving homes, construction noise, or conflicts with other pets can also cause stress. Underlying health issues may contribute as well (Cats Protection, 2023).

Physical signs of stress in cats include dilated pupils, panting or difficulty breathing, tremors or shaking, and excessive grooming or hair loss. Cats may also have digestive issues like vomiting, diarrhea, or constipation. Incessant meowing or yowling, aggression, hiding, and urinary issues like inappropriate elimination are common behavioral signs of stress (Blue Cross, 2022).

Overall, stress in cats can manifest in a variety of physical and behavioral changes. Being aware of potential causes and signs can help identify stressed cats early on.

Why do cats lick themselves and others?

Grooming is a natural instinctual behavior for cats. They lick themselves to keep their coats clean, remove debris, stimulate circulation, and distribute natural oils evenly on their fur and skin. The repetitive motion of licking has a calming and soothing effect for cats, similar to stimming behaviors in humans. Cats also lick each other as a social bonding activity and to reinforce connections within a group. A mother cat will lick her kittens to groom them, stimulate digestion, and provide comfort. Adult cats often lick each other in social groups as an affectionate gesture or to groom hard-to-reach spots. So regular self-licking and social licking among cats is completely normal feline behavior.

Cats spend up to 50% of their waking hours grooming themselves and others. Their rough tongues work like brushes to stimulate the fur and skin and keep their coats shiny and healthy. Plus, licking spreads pheromones from glands around their mouth, chin, and cheeks, helping cats pick up chemical signals about identity and social status. So frequent licking serves many natural purposes for cat health, bonding, and communication.

Licking as a Self-Soothing Behavior

Licking can be a self-soothing behavior for cats. The act of licking releases endorphins in the cat’s brain which can help to reduce anxiety and stress. Licking activates the same neural pathways associated with nursing and suckling behaviors when cats are kittens. Much like an infant sucking its thumb, licking provides comfort and stimulation for cats.

As documented in an article on, licking is one of several repetitive, soothing behaviors cats may engage in when they are feeling anxious (source). Other self-soothing behaviors include sucking, chewing, and over-grooming. While licking can be a normal grooming behavior for cats, excessive licking may signal underlying stress or anxiety issues.

Excessive licking as a sign of stress

Cats normally groom themselves regularly throughout the day to keep their coats clean and free of debris. However, excessive licking that goes above and beyond normal grooming habits can be a sign of underlying stress or anxiety in cats. According to The Spruce Pets (, overgrooming is when a cat spends an abnormally large amount of time obsessively grooming itself.

This overgrooming behavior stems from stress and can lead to hair loss, skin damage, and sores if left unchecked. As noted by the MSPCA (, overgrooming is considered a psychogenic disorder and obsessive-compulsive behavior triggered by anxiety. Cats feel compelled to lick themselves excessively as a self-soothing mechanism when stressed.

Therefore, while normal grooming is healthy, excessive licking and overgrooming can be a red flag for an underlying issue causing the cat stress and anxiety. It’s important for cat owners to recognize the signs and take steps to identify and address the root cause of the stress.

Why cats lick their owners

Cats often lick their owners as a sign of affection and bonding. When cats lick each other during social grooming, it helps establish connections and relationships between them. Your cat transfers this behavior to you as a way to show love and mark you as part of their social group or family.

Licking allows cats to mingle their scents, leaving traces of their odor on you. This scent marking reinforces bonds while also claiming their territory. Your cat is essentially saying “you belong to me” by licking you.

Kittens lick their mothers as a gesture of affection and bonding. The maternal licking also serves to clean and soothe kittens. When cats lick their human owners, it harkens back to the comforting, bonding grooming they received as kittens from their mother. It can be a self-soothing behavior transferred onto their human companion.

Some research indicates cats lick their owners out of stress at times. The self-grooming behavior relaxes them, and by licking your skin they transfer that calming effect to you. But more often than not, affection and bonding remain the primary motivators for why cats lick their human owners.


Is licking owners a sign of cat stress?

The relationship between cats licking their owners and stress is somewhat unclear, with evidence supporting both sides. On one hand, some experts believe that when a cat faces stressful situations, they may lick their trusted human companion as a self-soothing behavior and to release calming endorphins. The tactile sensation of licking can produce a temporary sense of relaxation in the cat.

However, other sources suggest that not all licking of owners is stress-related. Many cats simply lick their owners as a social bonding behavior or sign of affection. Unless the licking behavior is excessive or accompanied by other symptoms of anxiety, it may not necessarily indicate that the cat is stressed.

Whether owner licking points to stress seems to depend a lot on the context, such as the cat’s normal licking behavior, the circumstances, and frequency. For example, a cat that suddenly begins licking its owner much more than usual when there are environmental changes like moving homes could signal the cat is stressed. But occasional licking during calm times may just be the cat’s way of relating to a trusted companion.

In determining if licking is a potential stress response, it’s important to look for other symptoms like restless behavior, changes in appetite, aggression, hiding, or excessive self-grooming. The combination of increased owner licking and other unusual behaviors would be more indicative of anxiety in cats.

Other Signs of Stress in Cats

In addition to excessive licking, there are other behaviors that can indicate a cat is feeling stressed or anxious. Some of the most common signs include:


It’s normal for cats to seek solitude sometimes, but a stressed cat may hide much more often. According to Cats Protection, cats that are hiding more than usual could be showing signs of stress.


A stressed cat may seem unable to settle down and relax. They may pace frequently or seem unable to get comfortable. As noted by Blue Cross, this restless behavior can indicate anxiety.


While all cats may exhibit aggressive behavior on occasion, increased aggression like swatting, hissing, or biting could suggest stress. The ASPCA states that this type of irritable behavior is a common sign of stress in cats.

Unusual Vocalizations

Excessive meowing, yowling or other strange vocalizations can also be a sign of stress, according to PetMD. Cats tend to be very vocal when they are feeling anxious or uncomfortable.

House Soiling

Inappropriate urination or defecation outside the litter box is a well-known sign of feline stress. As noted by the ASPCA, inappropriate elimination is how some cats manifest their anxiety.


Excessive licking, chewing, or scratching of the fur is another potential sign of stress, according to Blue Cross. Cats may overgroom as a self-soothing behavior when feeling anxious.

Tips to reduce stress in cats

There are several ways you can help reduce stress in cats. One of the most important is providing environmental enrichment. Cats are highly intelligent animals that need mental stimulation. Make sure your cat has access to toys, scratching posts, cat trees, and other forms of enrichment. Rotate toys frequently to keep them interesting. Place toys, scratchers, and perches near windows where your cat can observe activity outside.

Keeping a predictable routine also helps cats feel less stressed. Feed them at the same times each day and avoid making abrupt changes to their environment. You can also try pheromone diffusers or sprays designed to have a calming effect on cats. These mimick the pheromones cats produce to comfort themselves. Place the diffusers near your cat’s sleeping and eating areas.

Ensure your cat has ample access to vital resources. Provide multiple litter boxes, food and water stations, scratching posts, and beds located in different areas so they don’t have to compete for these resources. This will help them feel more secure and relaxed in their environment.

When to seek help for cat stress

If your cat is exhibiting ongoing destructive behaviors, loss of appetite, lethargy, or skin damage from overgrooming, it’s time to seek professional help. These symptoms indicate your cat’s stress has become severe and is impacting their physical and mental health.

Specifically, look for these signs that mean it’s time to call your veterinarian:

  • Not eating or drinking for more than 24 hours
  • Excessive vomiting or diarrhea lasting over 24 hours
  • Significant weight loss
  • Excessive vocalizing like meowing or yowling
  • Aggression like biting or scratching
  • Hiding and avoiding social contact
  • Compulsive behaviors like overgrooming
  • Inappropriate urination or defecation
  • Self-mutilation causing skin damage

Your vet can examine your cat for any underlying medical conditions contributing to stress. They may prescribe medication to help manage your cat’s anxiety. Your vet can also refer you to a veterinary behaviorist who can design a customized behavior modification plan.

Getting professional help is important since ongoing, unchecked stress takes a major toll on a cat’s health and quality of life. With treatment guided by your vet, your cat’s symptoms should improve.


In summary, while excessive licking can be a sign of stress in cats, licking serves many purposes for cats, including self-grooming and showing affection. Licking people can indicate stress, but must be considered in the context of other potential signs like appetite changes, hiding, and aggression. If your cat’s licking seems excessive or is paired with other concerning behaviors, take steps to identify and reduce potential sources of stress and anxiety. A calm, stimulating home environment, routine veterinary care, and extra playtime can all help minimize stress for a cat’s long-term health and happiness.

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