Miaow! My tongue is a very essential part of my anatomy!
It’s a multipurpose tool which helps me taste food, drink water and groom myself. I groom myself a lot – in fact I can spend up to 50% of my time preening, and it's one sign (of many!) that I am feeling relaxed and happy.
But our tongues are not smooth, like a human's tongue. They are covered with firm, backward-facing spines made of keratin, called papillae. When we groom ourselves, the papillae help us to remove dirt and loose fur from our coat. And when we are hot, they help us to apply saliva to our coat to keep us cool.
So, there are lots of things that you might see us lick. But why do cats sometimes lick humans?
Although my pet parents are human, we are in the same social group and, just as a mother cat will groom her kittens to show affection and strengthen their bond, this is one of the ways we can show our pet parents just how much they mean to us.
You’re part of my social group
Cats are more solitary animals by nature, but all still form social bonds! For example, a queen cat will groom her kittens, and cats who live together and get along will often groom or lick each other. So, if your cat licks you, it’s probably a compliment! They want to show you that they have accepted you as part of their family.
Sometimes when I lick my pet parent, she’ll stop what she’s doing and play with me. She’s made me some fun toys, so when I want to have a little playtime, I will climb onto her lap and lick her, and she seems to know what I want to do.
You taste nice!
Have you been cooking recently? You might find your cat likes the smell of something that has been left on your skin and wants to have a taste. Or perhaps your skin tastes a little salty if you’ve been sweating. I will often lick my pet parent’s hand when she has been preparing my food – I don't want to miss any!
We want comfort
Licking can provide comfort to us, in a similar way kneading does when we jump onto your lap or a soft surface. We may also purr at the same time, showing that we would like your attention and some love!
We might be stressed
Licking can also be used as a displacement behaviour by cats if they are feeling stressed. This is usually directed towards ourselves, but if you are close, we may start licking you too. Try to work out what is making us feel stressed and how you can resolve the issue. My pet parents plug in FELIWAY Optimum in the room where I spend most of my time and that certainly makes me feel more calm and serene.
We’re feeling unwell
Sometimes we may lick you if we have a medical problem. This may be our way of letting you know we are feeling some discomfort and we need your attention. If you are unable to figure out what’s wrong with your cat, always get them checked out by a vet.
However, try to deter your cat from licking around any open wounds on your skin in case they are carrying harmful bacteria on their tongue. If this happens, always make sure you clean the licked area immediately. Also, if you regularly use creams or ointments on your skin, make sure these are not toxic to your cat.
We’ve had enough!
Even cats can have enough of a good thing! We like to be petted on our own terms and a little at a time is often what we prefer – so, if we’ve had enough of being petted we might just lick you to indicate that we want you to stop. But beware! If we are making attempts to get away from attention, licking might be followed by a nip or a scratch, so make sure you can read our body language to know when we’ve had enough.
If you’ve had enough
As I mentioned, our tongues are covered in little spines and these might be uncomfortable on human skin. But remember, we are likely trying to show you we care. So, if you want us to stop, just move yourself away slowly without saying anything. Please don’t shout, as this will scare us and damage the bond we have with you. Try to distract us with a toy on a long stick, or throw a ball for us to chase.
And if you’d like to encourage us to stop licking you, whenever we interact with you without licking, treats will always be welcome!