Do Cats Really Love You When They Lick You?

Why Do Cats Show Affection By Licking?

For ages cats have been revered as aloof, independent creatures. But cat lovers know there’s more to cats than meets the eye. Underneath that guarded exterior lies a deeply affectionate animal that enjoys giving and receiving love. One of the ways cats display this affection is through licking and grooming behaviors.

When your furry feline friend licks you, they’re not just tasting something salty. Those little licks are packed with meaning and affection. Understanding why cats lick can help strengthen your bond and ensure your cat’s licking remains a positive force. Let’s explore the facts behind this common cat behavior.

Why Do Cats Lick

Cats lick for a variety of reasons. One of the main reasons is grooming. A cat’s tongue is covered in small, backward-facing spines called papillae that act like a comb or brush to smooth their fur and keep it clean and tidy. Grooming spreads natural oils through their coat and removes loose hair and dirt. Mother cats also groom their kittens to help stimulate bowel movements and urination.

Another reason cats lick is for scent marking. Cats have scent glands in their cheeks and when they lick objects or other cats it deposits their scent. This is a way for them to claim territory and feel secure in their environment. It can also signal familiarity or affection between cats.

Licking is also a way for cats to show affection. When cats lick each other or their human caregivers it releases endorphins that help promote social bonding. Mutual grooming between cats strengthens their social connection. It’s a calming, comforting activity that reinforces friendship or kinship.

Finally, licking can help heal wounds. A cat’s saliva contains enzymes and compounds that provide antibacterial benefits. Licking minor cuts or injuries helps keep them clean and promotes healing. It can also be a self-soothing behavior if the cat has sore spots or irritation.

So in summary, the main reasons cats lick are for grooming, scent marking, showing affection, and healing wounds. The various purposes all help cats stay clean, facilitate chemical communication, reinforce social bonds, and promote health and wellbeing.

Licking as Affection

Licking is one of the primary ways cats show affection and bond with their owners. When a cat licks you, they are mimicking the nursing behavior they would use with their mother as kittens. This releases oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone,” which promotes bonding and feelings of comfort and trust.

Cats tend to lick other cats or people they feel closely bonded with and view as part of their family group. It’s a sign they feel safe and relaxed around you. The feel of a cat’s rough tongue on your skin releases oxytocin in you as well, strengthening the human-cat bond.

Kittens will lick their littermates and mother constantly as they grow up. Adult cats continue to lick for grooming purposes and as a sign of affection. Cats who lick you frequently are showing their love and wanting to reinforce your relationship.

Frequent licking, especially of your hands, face, or other body parts, is a clear sign your cat feels a close attachment. It’s their way of showing you belong to their family and social group. Consider increased licking a positive sign that your bond is growing stronger.

When Licking Goes Too Far

While licking can be a sign of affection, some cats take it too far through overgrooming. Overgrooming is when a cat excessively licks, chews, or bites at their own fur and skin, sometimes causing damage.

There are a few reasons a cat may overgroom:

  • Compulsive disorder – Some cats groom compulsively, similar to OCD in humans. The overgrooming is repetitive and excessive.
  • Stress or anxiety – Licking releases endorphins that relieve anxiety for cats. Overgrooming can be a coping mechanism for stressed cats. Changes in routine, new people or pets, or conflict with other cats can trigger stress.
  • Allergies or skin irritation – Allergies, fleas, skin conditions can cause itching that leads to overgrooming of the irritated areas.

Overgrooming can cause hair loss, bald spots, and skin damage from continual chewing or biting. It becomes a vicious cycle because the damaged skin is even more irritated. In extreme cases, cats may chew their feet or tail, requiring partial amputation. Secondary infections are also common once the protective skin barrier is broken.

If you notice your cat excessively licking certain areas, take them to the vet to identify any underlying medical issue. For compulsive overgrooming, behavior modification techniques can help shift the habit.

Encouraging Positive Licking

There are ways cat owners can encourage more positive, affectionate licking from their feline friends. One is to focus on petting cats in areas they find soothing and pleasurable, like under the chin, behind the ears, and at the base of the tail. Cats have scent glands in these “sweet spots” that when stimulated release pheromones they find comforting. Petting these areas can promote purring and relaxed licking as a sign of affection.

Using synthetic pheromone products like Feliway can also encourage positive licking by helping to reduce cats’ stress levels. Pheromones mimic cats’ natural facial pheromones to create a calming environment. With less anxiety, cats are more likely to show affection through relaxed licking instead of excessive grooming.

Finally, reducing stress in general can lead to more positive licking. Providing a cat with proper enrichment through toys, scratching posts, a clean litter box, and avoiding major environment changes can prevent anxiety that leads to overgrooming. Keeping your cat’s routine consistent and minimizing loud noises, unfamiliar guests, and changes to their territory are other ways to lower their stress so affectionate licking prevails.

Discouraging Excessive Licking

There are a few techniques you can try to discourage your cat from excessive licking behavior:

Distraction techniques like playing with toys can shift your cat’s focus away from licking. Engage your cat in active playtime with wand toys, treat puzzle toys, and play sessions with you. This mental and physical stimulation can reduce anxiety and stress.

In severe cases, your vet may prescribe anti-anxiety medication to help curb obsessive licking habits. Medications like fluoxetine and clomipramine can help reduce anxiety and compulsive behaviors when used alongside behavior modification.

Applying bitter-tasting topical deterrents formulated for cats can also discourage licking. These sprays and creams give an unpleasant taste when licked, which deters cats from that area. Use deterrents sparingly and monitor for skin irritation.

The key is addressing the root cause of excessive licking, rather than just punishing the behavior. Work with your vet to get to the source of the problem through proper diagnosis, treatment, and training techniques. Consistency and environmental enrichment are also vital for curbing obsessive licking in cats.

Licking Other Cats vs Humans

While you may think your cat licks you to show affection, you may be surprised to learn cats actually lick other cats more than humans for bonding. When cats lick and groom each other, it helps strengthen social connections and relationships between cats.

Cats have scent glands in their cheeks, so when they rub on objects or lick other cats, they’re spreading their scent. This exchange of scents helps cats recognize friends vs strangers. Licking and grooming another cat is a sign of friendship.

Even though cats lick other cats more for bonding, they still show affection for their humans through licking. Since cats can’t grasp or hug the way humans can, licking allows your cat to show you some love. When your cat licks your hand or face, it’s their way of giving you a cat “kiss” and saying “I love you.”

So while licking may be more about feline bonding, when your cat licks you, it’s a clear sign they care about you and want to show some affection.

When to Seek Help

There are some signs of excessive licking in cats that warrant a veterinary visit. These include:

  • Extreme hair loss in areas where the cat licks frequently, according to Purina. This type of baldness results from obsessive licking habits.
  • Wounds, sores or irritation of the skin caused by repeated licking, as noted by PetMD. The friction of the cat’s tongue can damage the skin over time.
  • Constant licking behavior that disrupts normal activity or becomes the focal point of the cat’s day, per Cornell University. This signals an underlying issue or compulsion.

If you notice any of the above signs, schedule a veterinary appointment right away. The vet can examine your cat, diagnose potential causes, and recommend treatment options to address excessive licking behavior.

Caring For Overgrooming

If your cat is overgrooming itself excessively, it’s important to take it to the vet for an examination. The vet can check for underlying medical causes like allergies, parasites, infections, or pain that may be causing the overgrooming behavior. Bloodwork and skin samples may be taken to test for issues.

If the cause is found to be behavioral, the vet may prescribe anti-anxiety medication to help calm your cat and reduce anxiety-related overgrooming. Medications like fluoxetine and clomipramine have been shown to be effective in some cases of feline overgrooming according to this source.

You may also need to use an Elizabethan collar, also known as a cone of shame, to prevent your cat from excessively licking and biting its fur. This protects their skin while the underlying cause is addressed. Just be sure to monitor your cat closely while they adjust to the collar.


In summary, cats lick for a variety of reasons. Licking is natural grooming behavior for cats and can be a sign of affection, especially light licking of the face and hands. However, excessive licking can be problematic and is usually a sign that something is wrong. Cats may overgroom due to stress, anxiety, boredom, or skin irritation. It’s important to identify the underlying cause of excessive licking and take steps to discourage it through environmental changes, medication, or veterinary care if necessary. Overall, cat licking is complex behavior that requires moderation. Light, infrequent licking is generally a positive sign of affection. But persistent, obsessive licking indicates issues that need attention.

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