Why Do Cats Lick? (Kitty Kisses)

Updated: October 23, 2023


At times, it may appear that the most active part of your feline companion is its tongue. In fact, a significant portion of a cat’s waking hours is dedicated to self-grooming, extending to the grooming of fellow felines and even humans. This intriguing behavior is a universal trait among all cats, spanning from the smallest domestic breeds to the largest members of the Felidae family.

If you’ve ever been roused from slumber by the rhythmic sound of your cat’s tongue or experienced the distinctive sensation of its sandpaper-like lick against your skin, you might have pondered the reason behind their preoccupation with this ritual. What makes their tongues feel so peculiar, and what drives this obsession? Let’s delve into the reasons behind feline grooming behavior and discern when it might become excessive.

Read also: Why Do Cats Lay on Your Chest? (Personal Space Invaders)

Heavy Duty Grooming: Features of the Feline Tongue

The feline tongue is a marvel of nature, equipped with an array of specialized features that enable cats to engage in extensive grooming activities. This unique organ serves as a multifunctional tool, crucial for various aspects of a cat’s well-being and behavior. In this article, we will delve into the distinct characteristics that make the feline tongue a formidable grooming instrument.

Swiss Army Tongues

Cat tongues are meticulously crafted for versatility and efficiency. This proves invaluable as they dedicate several hours each day to meticulously groom their fur, which often involves navigating through thick layers. Beyond their grooming duties, these tongues are indispensable for essential tasks like eating and drinking, allowing them to access otherwise hard-to-reach places.

Built-in Brushes

Cats take great pride in their appearance, ensuring their fur remains sleek and untangled. The papillae play a crucial role in this endeavor, acting akin to bristles on a hairbrush by carefully disentangling strands and layers of fur. As they glide through the coat, they also collect any debris that may be present.

Without these tiny barbs, cats would face considerable challenges in maintaining cleanliness beneath their outer layers of fur. While their grooming routine may already seem extensive, it would be even more time-consuming if not for the assistance provided by the papillae on their tongues.

Plenty of Papillae

The cat’s tongue owes its rough texture to the presence of numerous tiny barbs, scientifically known as papillae, covering it from tip to base. Composed of the robust material keratin, which is also found in cat claws and human fingernails, these papillae are strategically positioned to face toward the throat, providing strength and durability. The central area of the tongue is adorned with longer barbs, while shorter ones line its sides.

It is widely believed that papillae evolved to assist cats in efficiently stripping flesh from their prey. Functioning much like Velcro, these barbs securely grip onto the food, directing it towards the throat due to their rear-facing orientation. This optimization of the feeding process proves invaluable for cats, especially when consuming freshly caught prey, as it allows them to conserve both time and energy compared to using a smoother tongue.

Mother Knows Best: How Cats Learn to Lick

In the intricate world of feline behavior, the art of grooming holds a paramount role. From their earliest days, kittens embark on a journey of learning this essential skill, guided by the patient and nurturing presence of their mother. This article delves into the fascinating process through which cats acquire the finesse of licking, showcasing the profound influence of maternal teachings.

First Contact

From the moment kittens come into the world, even before their eyes open, they’re introduced to the practice of licking. Right after birth, their mother instinctively begins this grooming ritual. It serves a dual purpose: not only does it cleanse the kittens, but it also provides them with soothing sensory input. Since kittens can’t see or hear until about two weeks after birth, the touch of their mother’s tongue is of paramount importance during these initial days.

While mother cats may at times seem a bit vigorous in their licking, there’s a valid reason behind it. Kittens rely on this stimulation for urination and defecation. The firm licking proves highly effective in facilitating these crucial bodily functions. Additionally, they need guidance in learning to suckle, and the act of licking aids in this process. It’s possible that the sensation of their mother’s tongue serves as a gentle encouragement for them to use their own.

Unwanted Touch

For some individuals, being unexpectedly licked by a cat can be less than enjoyable. The sensation of a coarse, moist tongue on your skin isn’t exactly the most pleasant experience, and some cats might not know when to stop, potentially causing discomfort or even skin irritation.

Reacting with a sudden shove or a shout may be a natural response, but it’s best to avoid it. Such reactions can break the trust between you and your cat and may also frighten them.

If your cat has chosen you as the recipient of their licks, consider it a compliment and take the opportunity to redirect their energy positively. When the licking begins, offer a toy or a treat to shift their focus away from your skin. Some people have successfully retrained their cats by applying a bitter-tasting spray to their skin in advance. When the cat licks, they encounter the unpleasant taste and learn to refrain from licking in that area.

Trying Out Tongues

Around the age of four weeks, kittens embark on their grooming journey, attempting to clean themselves and their companions. At this stage, their efforts can be a tad clumsy, often resulting in missed spots. Thus, the additional assistance from their mother and littermates is greatly valued. Even adult cats encounter challenges in reaching certain areas, like the top of their head, warranting special attention.

This communal grooming ritual imparts a crucial life skill to the kittens: the art of forming bonds with fellow cats. Grooming holds such significance in feline social dynamics that it serves as a gesture of camaraderie. Engaging in this practice with their siblings not only solidifies familial ties but also instructs the kittens in expressing affection and establishing trust. This early lesson in social grooming lays the foundation for their future interactions with other cats.

Friends from Other Species

If you’ve earned your cat’s trust, it doesn’t matter what species you are. Your consistent provision of food, play, and affection has demonstrated your worthiness of friendship, and your cat will express this in various ways. This may include rubbing against you and snuggling up beside you. Additionally, your cat may display affection by licking you, just as it would with another cat.

Interestingly, cats don’t seem to have the same preferences for specific body parts in humans as they do with fellow felines. They’ll happily lick any reachable skin, often focusing on whatever is closest. Typically, this means hands and arms, especially during petting sessions. However, some cats might even go for the feet or, occasionally, even the face.

Sandpaper on Skin: Why Cats Lick People

Cats have a multifaceted approach to grooming. They lick themselves to maintain a fresh appearance and feel clean. When they groom each other, it’s a way to strengthen social bonds and assist in hard-to-reach areas. However, when it comes to you, a non-furry and presumably clean individual, it might be puzzling why your cat still engages in this behavior. So, why do cats lick humans?

  • Social Bonding: Just as cats groom each other to foster connections, they may also extend this behavior to their human companions. It’s a way for them to express affection and strengthen their bond with you.
  • Mimicking Maternal Behavior: Kittens are groomed by their mothers from a young age. When your cat licks you, it might be a way of showing maternal or nurturing behavior, even if you’re not a fellow cat.
  • Comfort and Trust: For cats, grooming is an intimate act that requires a sense of comfort and trust. When your cat grooms you, it’s a sign that they feel safe and secure in your presence.
  • Sensory Exploration: Cats use their mouths and tongues to explore their environment. When they lick you, they’re not only grooming you but also gathering information about you through scent and taste.
  • Routine Behavior: If your cat is used to a regular grooming routine, they may include you as part of that regimen. It’s a habit they’ve developed to demonstrate care and affection.
  • Attention-Seeking Behavior: If your cat craves attention, they might resort to licking as a way to get your focus and affection.
  • Imprinting: If you’ve raised the cat from kittenhood, they might have imprinted on you as a parental figure. In this case, licking could be a way of reciprocating the care they received when they were young.

Each cat is an individual, and their reasons for this behavior can vary. It’s important to observe your cat’s body language and overall behavior to understand their specific motivations for licking you.

Too Much Tongue: When Licking Goes Wrong

While it’s typical for cats to devote significant time to self-grooming, there comes a point where excessive licking raises concern. Your cat might engage in such rigorous grooming that it starts to lose fur, leading to the emergence of bald patches, particularly on its legs or stomach. In some cases, it may even resort to biting and sucking during this process, resulting in blood and sores.

This excessive grooming behavior can serve as an indicator of various underlying health issues. An accurate diagnosis hinges on the presence of additional symptoms and may necessitate the expertise of a professional. If you find yourself worried about your cat’s grooming habits, it is advisable to seek advice from a veterinarian.

Compulsive Behavior

Much like humans, cats can experience stress and anxiety, often leading to compulsive grooming. Triggers for this behavior can include encounters with new people, major changes like relocation, and conflicts with other pets in the household. While some cats may naturally cease this behavior once given time to adapt, there are instances where it persists beyond a reasonable period.

If your cat’s anxious grooming appears severe or doesn’t abate even after removing the trigger, a veterinarian might recommend medication to alleviate the obsessive behavior. Some owners have reported success using feline pheromone sprays, which emulate the calming hormones naturally produced by mother cats, inducing a state of relaxation in their feline companions.

An Insatiable Itch

If your cat’s excessive grooming is accompanied by scratching, the presence of small sores, or dandruff, it could be indicative of itchiness resulting from dry skin or a parasite infestation. This behavior may also be a sign of allergies, particularly those related to food.

Fleas, being visible to the naked eye, can be addressed at home, but other parasites like mites require microscopic examination and a diagnosis from a veterinarian. Most parasites are easily treatable, and once eradicated, your cat’s grooming patterns should return to normal.

Dry skin is a common issue, especially in cold weather or when humidity levels are low, such as when an air conditioner is in use. Dehydration can exacerbate this condition. Ensure your cat has access to fresh drinking water at all times and contemplate using a humidifier to reintroduce moisture into the air, benefiting both the environment and your cat’s skin.

Allergies can manifest as itchy skin, alongside symptoms like watery eyes, sneezing, and lethargy. Cats may be allergic to common food components such as corn, artificial colorings, and preservatives. Identifying the specific allergen might require a process of trial and error, but once eliminated, the itching should gradually subside.

How to Stop Your Cat From Licking You

Experiencing a thorough cat licking isn’t always the most comfortable sensation. It can mimic the texture of sandpaper against your skin, owing to the backward-facing hooks on a cat’s tongue, which are designed to groom and untangle their fur much like a comb.

It’s important to remember that your cat finds this grooming action pleasurable and isn’t aware that it might be uncomfortable for you. If the licking becomes a bit overwhelming, consider gently redirecting your cat towards an alternative activity. Remove the area being licked and offer gentle pets or present a stimulating toy. If the licking persists, temporarily withdraw attention until it subsides, and be sure to offer praise when the licking ceases.

Why Do Cats Lick Humans?

Cats use licking as a form of social bonding and affection. It’s their way of showing love and care.

What Does it Mean When a Cat Licks You?

When a cat licks you, it’s a sign of trust and affection. They’re treating you like family.

Is it Normal for Cats to Lick Each Other?

Yes, cats frequently groom each other as a sign of camaraderie and to strengthen their social bonds.

Why Do Cats Groom Themselves So Much?

Cats are meticulous groomers as it helps them regulate body temperature and maintain cleanliness. It also provides comfort and relaxation.

Should I Be Concerned if My Cat Licks Excessively?

While some licking is normal, excessive licking could be a sign of stress or an underlying medical issue. Consulting a vet is advisable.

Can Cats Over-Groom Themselves?

Yes, over-grooming can lead to skin issues. If you notice bald patches or irritated skin, seek advice from a veterinarian.

What Does it Mean When Cats Lick Each Other’s Ears?

Ear-licking is a grooming behavior that demonstrates trust and camaraderie between cats. It’s a sign of affection.

How Can I Encourage Positive Licking Behavior in My Cat?

Providing a calm and secure environment, spending quality time with your cat, and reciprocating affection can strengthen the bond and encourage positive licking behavior.


Cats’ penchant for licking, often referred to as “kitty kisses,” serves as a powerful testament to their affectionate nature. Through this grooming behavior, felines communicate trust, camaraderie, and a deep sense of belonging. Understanding the significance behind their licks enables us to forge stronger bonds with our feline companions.

While regular grooming is a natural and healthy part of a cat’s routine, it’s crucial to be attentive to any signs of excessive or unusual licking. Such behavior might indicate underlying stress or medical concerns. Seeking guidance from a veterinarian ensures the well-being and happiness of our furry friends.

Michael R

Michael R

I'm a publisher and editor at Cat Guide 101. I imagine that since you’re here, you likely own a cat — or two! — so helping you better understand them is my aim. I'd like to invite you to check out our about page to learn more about the Cat Guide 101 story.

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