Why Do Cats Groom Humans Hair?

It’s a common experience for many cat owners – you’re sitting down, relaxing or working on something, and suddenly you feel a scratchy cat tongue grooming your hair. This instinctual behavior may seem perplexing to humans, but it makes perfect sense from a cat’s perspective.

In the wild, cats regularly groom each other’s fur for social bonding, scent marking, and hygiene purposes. When our domestic feline friends groom human hair, they are simply transferring their natural social behaviors onto their human companions. Understanding the motivations behind this quirky cat habit can help owners decipher their pet’s communication style and needs.

Natural grooming instinct

Cats have a natural instinct to groom themselves in order to stay clean, healthy, and free of external parasites. Their tongues are covered in small, stiff spines called papillae that act like a comb or brush to help remove dirt, loose hair, and parasites from their coats. In the wild, cats must groom regularly to keep their coats in good condition as a matter of survival (Hill’s Pet Nutrition). Domestic cats retain this strong grooming urge even when not necessary for survival.

Cats will methodically lick their coats, carefully cleaning one section at a time until their entire body has been groomed. You may notice your cat first licking and grooming its back, stomach, sides, legs, and paws, before moving up to thoroughly clean the head and face. Cats that live together will also commonly groom each other as a social behavior, again helping ensure each cat stays clean and healthy.

Social bonding

Cats groom each other as a form of social bonding and affection. When cats live together and groom one another, it helps strengthen their relationships. According to Heart and Paw, mutual grooming between cats is a sign that they are bonded with each other. Littermates and cats who have lived together often groom one another frequently. This social grooming behavior transfers over when a cat grooms its human companion. The cat sees the human as a member of its social group and will groom them as a sign of affection and bonding.

Scent Marking

Cats have scent glands in their mouths that produce pheromones. When a cat grooms a human by licking them, they are transferring their scent onto the human’s skin and hair. According to Purrinlot, cats have the tendency to re-lick every hair that has been groomed as a way to “scent mark” it with their unique scent.

This scent marking behavior allows the cat to claim ownership and show affection for their human. As Cat Behavior Associates explains, when a cat spreads their scent through grooming and rubbing, it creates a “group scent” that bonds the cat with their human family members. The pheromones in the cat’s saliva get transferred to the human’s body, marking them as part of the cat’s social group.

Texture and taste

Some cats are attracted to the texture and taste of human hair. Cats have sensory receptors on their tongues and noses that allow them to explore objects through smell and taste. They may find the smooth, silky texture of human hair pleasing and want to nibble or lick it (1-2).

According to one source, “Cats have tiny, hook-like structures called papillae on their tongues which are designed to help grip and swallow food. When your cat grooms you, the papillae latch onto your hair strands” (https://www.thesprucepets.com/cats-grooming-humans-553935). The texture and slight odor of human hair may be appealing to certain cats.

While not all cats exhibit this behavior, those that do seem to enjoy the tactile sensation and flavor of human hair. It does not necessarily indicate a medical issue if your cat gently nibbles or licks your hair, but consult a vet if the behavior seems obsessive or involves actually ingesting large amounts of hair.

Attention seeking

Cats have evolved to use their natural grooming behaviors to solicit attention from humans. For domestic cats, grooming, especially excessive or inappropriate grooming, can be a way to get their human’s focus when they want petting, feeding or playtime (source:Why Cats Overgroom and How You Can Stop It). Licking or nibbling on hair can be an attention-seeking tactic, as the sensation prompts the human to interact with the cat.

Some cats learn that grooming or biting human hair results in attention, petting, feeding, or other rewards from their human. So they continue the behavior as a way to request human interaction. It’s important not to inadvertently reinforce excessive grooming by giving the cat what it wants when exhibiting the behavior. Instead, ignore excessive grooming and reward the cat with attention only when exhibiting calm behavior (source:Cat Overgrooming: What’s Normal and What Isn’t?). This can help refocus the cat’s instincts in a more appropriate direction.

Kittens mimic mothers

Kittens start learning grooming behaviors from their mothers at a very young age. Mother cats spend a great deal of time licking and grooming their kittens right after birth to clean them and stimulate blood circulation.[1] This maternal grooming continues as the kittens grow, helping to strengthen the mother-kitten bond.

As kittens observe their mother’s grooming rituals, they pick up on these behaviors and begin to mimic them. At around 3-4 weeks of age, kittens will start licking and grooming their littermates, imitating what their mother has modeled. These early grooming interactions help kittens learn social skills and appropriate cat etiquette.

When kittens are adopted by humans at around 8-12 weeks old, their instinct to lick and groom often gets transferred onto their human caretakers. So some of the grooming behaviors kittens direct at their owners likely originate from those earliest maternal influences.

[1] https://www.thesprucepets.com/cats-grooming-humans-553935

Stress relief

Grooming can be a self-soothing behavior for stressed cats. When cats are feeling anxious or upset, the repetitive motion of licking their fur can have a calming effect. Overgrooming is sometimes linked to psychogenic alopecia, a stress-related condition where cats excessively groom themselves, leading to bald patches or sores. According to the MSPCA, cats may overgroom due to environmental stressors like a new home, addition of other pets, or a lack of enrichment. The grooming seems to provide comfort in stressful situations. So cats that lick or groom their human frequently may be exhibiting displacement behavior and trying to relieve anxiety through the familiar grooming motion.

Medical causes

Excessive grooming and licking in cats can sometimes be caused by underlying medical issues. One common medical reason is dental disease or other oral pain. Cats may excessively groom areas around their mouth if they have issues with their teeth, gums, or jaws, such as dental disease, oral infections, or trauma.

Cats may also overgroom areas if they have skin irritations or allergies. Skin conditions like flea allergy dermatitis can cause severe itching and discomfort, leading cats to lick, bite, or scratch at their skin repeatedly in an effort to relieve the irritation. Other allergies to food or environmental triggers can prompt overgrooming as well.

Additionally, pain or arthritis in areas like the back or hips may cause a cat to overgroom those regions if they are difficult for the cat to reach and groom normally. In some cases, obsessive licking of the genitals or belly may signal an underlying urinary tract or gastrointestinal issue prompting the behavior.

If excessive grooming develops suddenly, a veterinary exam is advisable to diagnose and treat any medical conditions that may be behind the behavior. Treating the underlying cause can help resolve overgrooming problems.


In conclusion, the main reasons cats groom human hair are due to natural grooming instincts, social bonding, scent marking, curiosity about texture and taste, and attention seeking. Of these, the social bonding aspect seems to be the most important motivation. When cats groom human hair, it strengthens the bond between cat and human. It is a sign of trust, affection, and acceptance into their social group. Cats that persistently groom their owners tend to have especially close relationships with them. So while grooming may sometimes seem annoying to us, we should take it as a compliment. It simply means your cat feels relaxed and bonded with you.

Scroll to Top