Dogs are so obvious about their slobber. They love us, and they don’t mind making a big scene about it. But what does it mean when a cat licks their guardian? Do they have the same reasons? Or are they expressing something else?
The prevailing theory is that cats are extending their feline grooming habits to their human guardians as a sign of trust and belonging. A cat licks their feline friends to groom them, especially in hard to reach places like backs, heads, and ears. We might just have something tasty on our hands, but a cleaning ritual is our first assumption when a cat licks us.
For a cat to groom a human, or affectionately lick them, it’s a big compliment. And it’s a form of bonding. A cat who licks their human is re-enacting the grooming and safe space that was provided to them by their mother. It’s a way of showing their guardian and other cats that they are an honorary member of the feline family.
Cats groom each other for more than bonding and cleaning. They actually share scents, too. Cats and dogs have sweat glands in their paws. Dogs only produce sweat where they don’t have hair, such as their tongues, which is why they pant when they are hot, and their paw pads. When they place their paws on us and lick us, they are leaving their scent on us. And anytime an animal intentionally leaves its scent on someone, they are claiming their territory.
Cats get stressed out just like anyone else. They may seem like they’re playing the nerves pretty cool, but animals express emotions and sensations differently than humans. When cats lick excessively or compulsively, it can be a sign of anxiety. This is especially clear if they are licking themselves bald. Once we establish the licking isn’t because of itchy allergies or tumors, stress is the next best answer. They are trying to comfort themselves by licking themselves, their guardians, or other surfaces, like fabrics and toys.
Our fur-babies spend a lot of time on their own. While cats often fare better than dogs, it’s easy to forget that Mr. Socks needs regular company and companionship. An especially important clue is cat licks accompanied by biting. A gentle bite or a serious gnawing can both mean Kitty Fantastico is looking for affectionate attention.
Allergies and Irritants
Skin allergies are more common in cats than people realize. And they can be seasonal or year-round. Licking can be an effort to alleviate the irritation. There may also be a pest. Fleas, mites, mosquitos and spider bites can be the source of skin problems and infections. Sergeant Fuzzy Boots can end up extending his frustrated licking to his guardian in an effort to alleviate his and his family’s discomfort.
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How to Stop the Cat Licks
Many guardians love being showered with affection by their cats, but there are those of us who prefer a little less cat saliva. The best first defense is to check Mr. Whiskers for irritants like allergies, bites, flakes from dry skin, or other signs their licking may be an extension of their discomfort.
If the medical side of things is all clear, gently training our feline friends away from the constant tongue bath is our best option. Distraction is the easiest solution. Keep shoelaces in every room and try to consistently redirect their licking into playtime.
Never punish a cat for normal behavior. If distraction doesn’t work, move away from the licking, while remaining in their company. This will help them identify the behavior you don’t want without thinking they are being fully rejected.
Offer a substitute. We can encourage cat licks on a favorite toy or a super soft terry cloth fabric swatch. A dedicated replacement item will, over time, alleviate our irritation at the constant tongue bath, while giving our cat companion a reasonable alternative.