Why Does My Cat Lick Me?

By Sara Ochoa, DVM March 23, 2019

A cat’s tongue is one of the most amazing tools in the animal kingdom. Nowadays, even though domesticated cats have become more like family members, they still possess all the necessary tools that are needed to live in the wild. Their tongue is one of the most important.  Let’s learn more about the cat tongue so you can better understand its uses and why your cat licks you.

The Anatomy Of The Cat Tongue And Its Uses

If you have ever been licked by a cat, then you may have noticed that it felt very rough, not soft and smooth like a lick from a dog. The cat tongue has backward facing barbs (papillae) and is one of the most important tools a cat possesses. These papillae cover the entire top surface of the cat’s tongue and are made of keratin. Keratin is the same substance found in human fingernails. Since around one quarter of a cat’s waking hours are spent grooming, it suffices to say that the barbs are used primarily as a brush. The barbs have a slightly curved shape to them so that they can hold saliva. The saliva helps to clean their the cat's fur as they lick, and it acts kind of like a lubricant for the papillae to slide through. The curved shape of the papillae also ensures that the saliva is delivered all the way down to the skin, so the entire hair follicle is cleaned. Scientists have studied this feature and speculate that the design of the papillae could be used in many other useful applications, such as applying liquid medicine to hairy areas or even carpet cleaning. Another keen observation was made looking through a thermal camera. The camera showed that when a cat licks itself, the saliva evaporates, therefore cooling the animal. Since felines are carnivores, their tongue does not contain as many taste buds as the human tongue does. This means they cannot taste sweets.

Brushing their fur isn’t the only way a cat uses its tongue. While drinking, a cat’s tongue curls downward, unlike a dog's tongue which tends to curl upward. This specific method used by cats slightly breaks the surface of the water with a very quick flicking motion that creates suction within the curl. When they draw their tongue back into their mouth, a stream of water is drawn upward so the cat can close its jaws and swallows. This flicking motion is so fast that the human eye can't even detect it. About four flicks per second! Another benefit to having barbs on their tongue is that they help strip meat from the bones of small prey. In the wild, every single calorie can be the difference between life or death, so the cat’s tongue is designed to take advantage of every morsel. You may also notice that cats groom immediately after eating. Even domesticated cats do this. Cats may be skillful predators in the wild, but they are also small enough to still be prey for larger predators (coyotes, bobcats, etc.). They must clean themselves thoroughly to avoid attracting larger predators.

Watch a cat's tongue in action.

Why Does My Cat Lick Me?

When a cat licks their human, there are a few things it could mean. The most obvious reason people assume they are being licked is because they believe their cat is showing them affection. That is true. Cats that have a relationship with one another, such as mother and child, siblings, or just friends, will groom each other as a sign of affection. The same can be said when your cat licks you. To a cat, it doesn’t matter if you are human. Once they come to care for you, cats will treat you the same way as any other member of their group by grooming you and teaching you how to groom yourself. In the wild, cats groom each other to help one another stay clean so they don’t attract larger predators. They will also teach younger kittens how to groom properly. So when your cat licks you, it may not just be a sign of affection. They are also trying to teach you how to groom yourself, just like a mother cat would her kittens. Everyone knows that a male cat will spray urine to mark its territory, but by licking you they are also marking you as their territory. This is your cat’s way of letting other cats know that they care about you, and you belong to them. If your cat senses that you are stressed or sick, they may also lick you. Your cat is trying to help you calm down or make you feel better, similar to what they would do to another cat in the wild. Ultimately, your cat is showing you how much they care about you.

Why Do Cats Lick Each Other?

Cats will lick each other to help with grooming. Some cats are a little on the chubby side and have a hard time reaching their back end, so another cat will help them keep that area clean. Grooming each other  is great for socializing and sharing a bonding experience. A mother cat will lick her young to keep them clean and to mark her kittens as hers to be accepted by the group. If a cat has a wound, another cat may lick the wound to keep it clean. Cats are very good at sensing illness in other members of their group, so if your cat is sick, one of your other cats may lick them to comfort them.

How Do I Stop My Cat From Licking Me?

There are times when it is inconvenient to receive a grooming session from your cat, such as when you are working on your computer. If you do not want your cat to lick you, then try to engage them in physical or mental enrichment. Giving them a toy to bat around the house or a food puzzle to play with are both good options to try to distract them.  Moreover, brushing your cat acts as if you are licking them. Most cats love to be brushed, and they will stop licking you to enjoy all the pampering they can get.

A cat’s tongue is a gateway to the evolution of their behavior that has been refined over thousands of years to help ensure their survival in the wild.  All of the ways in which they use their tongues to groom, drink, and show affection combine to create and define the incredibly complex and somewhat mysterious creature we call, the cat.

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Watch a grooming session in action.