What Does It Mean When a Cat Licks You?

Gray cat licking owner's hand

The Spruce / Ulyana Verbytska

You probably have watched your cat give itself a bath on numerous occasions. After all, felines spend a great deal of their waking hours washing their fur with their tongues. But what does it mean when your cat licks you? It's quite common for a cat to give their owner a lick or two on the hand, arm, or even on the cheek.

For cats, licking is mostly a sign of affection or a method of cleaning, since cats lick themselves (or their kittens) in order to groom. However, cats will also lick each other to show various types of affection. A lick from a cat could indicate that they are marking their territory or reminding you that you're a part of a the family. Even though you can't read a cat's mind, you can be sure that your cat is licking you because they like you.


14 Ways Cats Show Their Love

Signs of Affection 

In the same way that you show affection to your cat by petting it, your cat may attempt to return the favor by licking you. After all, their mothers licked them when they were kittens, so a tongue bath is one of their primary associations with care-taking. If your feline friend loves to lick you, it probably means they would like some affection in return. Which, honestly, is one of the best parts of owning a cat. Just think of those little licks as your cat's way of giving you a kiss.

Marking Territory

Cats use pheromones, which are scented hormones, to mark their territory. They have small glands in their cheeks that secrete the pheromones, which humans cannot smell, but other cats can. By rubbing their cheeks on furniture, other household pets, or your legs, they are marking their territory with their pheromones. However, your cat may also lick you as a way of claiming you as its own.

Licking and head rubs are affectionate ways for cats to claim you as part of their property. When your cat licks or rubs against you, they are reaffirming that you are important to them and they want all the other cats to know. You may notice that sometimes other cats shy away from you; it's possible that they smell that you already belong to another cat.

Looking for Attention

If you always react when your cat licks you, then it quickly will learn that licking gets attention. You might then find your cat giving you licks when they want food, petting, play time, or even a cuddle session in your lap.

Part of the Family

Many people joke that cats think they're humans and given the way some cats behave towards their owners, it's easy to see why. A great example is a cat who will leave dead mice or birds on their owner's doorsteps in an attempt to share a tasty treat. Cats have also been known to present their owners with live animals in an attempt to teach the owner to hunt. It's clear that not only do many cats see their owners as part of the family, they also see them as a bit inept at being cats. Female cats especially will exhibit this sort of parenting or nurturing type of behavior.

When cats lick you, it can mean that they are attempting to teach you to groom yourself. It's a memory your cat had from being licked by its own mother and is a real sign of affection. Cats will also lick other household felines as a way to calm them down. Cats are very attentive to their owner's moods so you might find your cat is more affectionate when you're stressed or sick. Cats are attempting to calm your anxiety the same way you would pet your cat if they seemed nervous.

You Taste Good

One obvious reason why your cat might lick you is that there's something tasty on your skin. If you recently handled fish, meat, or other foods that cats like, your cat might want to lick the goodness off your skin.

Soothing Behavior

Cats use licking for many things. Most commonly, they groom themselves or their kittens by licking. But a cat can also lick as a way to soothe itself when upset, angry, or anxious. And by extension, your cat might lick you if they sense you are sad, anxious, or upset. This is another way your cat shows you affection, care, or mothering.

Weaned Too Soon

If a kitten is weaned too early or is orphaned, it can grow up to be a cat that uses licking as a way to satisfy the early oral stimulation it missed out on as a kitten. If your cat seems more persistent than most in giving you licks, and especially if it also likes to "make biscuits" on you by flexing its paws and claws in and out on your skin, then there's a good chance your feline was taken from the care of its mother too soon.

But It Hurts

A thorough cat licking isn't always the most comfortable experience. Their tongue can feel like sandpaper on your skin. This is because cat tongues have backward-facing hooks that are meant to pull and clean their fur the way a comb would. Remember, to your cat being licked feels good, it doesn't know it is hurting you. When a cat licks you it's just trying to show some love. If it's a little too much for you, just gently pull your hand away and give your cat some loving strokes to show that you return their affections.