Cats are a bit more refined than dogs – dogs lick your face and anything else with an amount of slobber involved and great enthusiasm. Cats on the other hand tend to give a delicate lick to the hand or arm, sometimes the face or, with my cat, the hair. But why does my cat lick me?
Usually a lick will follow a little friendly bite or a grab with the paws and this is copy behaviour that they experienced as a kitten from their mother. This was what the mother cat did to clean the kitten, care for it and make sure it was okay. Cats groom each other as a sign of affection and when they groom us, they are including us in their family. Sometimes, when they groom the head or hair this is also helping out because cats can find it difficult to groom those spots themselves.
The feeling of being washed is one of the earliest memories a cat has. Mother cats wash the kittens from the moment they are born when they remove the afterbirth fluids and to stimulate the kitten to take its first breath. Whenever the kitten has been out of the nest, as they get older, she will wash it again to re-establish her own scent on them.
Sharing scents is another big reason for licking each other. In a similar way to scratching something leaves their scent on the item and claims it as theirs, so does licking. So effectively, when they groom you they are claiming you as theirs each time they do so.
Cats enjoy the sensation of licking and find it comforting and soothing. Stroking them is a similar sensation that this is why they enjoy this. There is some theories that cats that are abandoned by their parents or take from them too early can continue baby habits into adulthood with suckling and excessive licking but this is very much dependant on the individual cat.
However if an older cat suddenly deigns to lick or suck when they have never done this before, this is something to take notice of. Cats that vigorously lick themselves may be suffering with problems such as skin irritations or fleas or may have been bitten by an insect and have an infection. Check the area they are paying too much attention to and seek a vet’s advice.
If for some reason you cannot cope with the sensation of being licked, never punish the cat for this as it is such as natural behaviour for them. Spritz the area they lick with a little lemon juice as this will put them off licking it or substitute it for a cloth that they can lick and nibble instead.
Licking and Biting
Cats sometimes bite then lick you and this can mean different things. Sometimes cats use biting as a means of communication so it is important to understand their overall body language to get what they are trying to tell you.
Biting and licking is part of playing for most cats and they do this to each other when they are kittens. They teach each other when the biting needs to stop by squealing so using a high-pitched noise might learn them that they are hurting you. Either that or just walking away from them when they get too rough with the biting.
Sometimes though biting can be a sign of affection. Mothers nibble kittens as part of grooming and adult cats often do that to their humans. If you find the biting is becoming too vigorous, simply move away from them to let them know you don’t like it.
Over-stimulation comes when playing or petting has gone on too long – they are wound up, basically. The tail twitches and their facial expression is irritated then a sharp bite comes along. You can’t train this behaviour out of the cat but you can train yourself to learn when they are getting wound up and stop the behaviour.
Like any pet, cats don’t come with a guide manual to tell you what they like and don’t and what works with them. It is a case of getting to know them, understand their personality and what they like so you can have what you like – an affectionate and loving companion.