Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on September 16, 2021

If you have a pet cat, you may often wonder why they seem to wash or groom you by licking your face or hands. Cat behaviorists say this is normal feline behavior. Here's more on why cats groom their owners.

Reasons Why Cats Lick and Groom

Cats act mysteriously sometimes, and you may find yourself trying to understand their behavior. When your cat licks or grooms you, they're doing several things — chief among them is communicating.

Leaving a scent. Feral cats wash one another to leave a smell on their fur. A group of feral cats that live together develop a group smell. This tells them who is part of their social group. Some people call this behavior marking their territory. When your cat licks or grooms you, it may be trying to leave a scent. Your cat wants others to know that you're family.‌

Showing affection. Cats also wash and groom humans to show affection. Other ways your cat shows affection may include:

  • Head bunting
  • Meowing‌
  • Purring
  • Rubbing against you with their head or body 
  • Blinking at you slowly‌

Bonding. Cats bond by licking and grooming one another. They also bond with their favorite humans this way, likely returning the favor of being held and petted.‌

Inviting play. Cats usually demand attention with gentle affection. Sometimes, your cat may lick or groom you to initiate playtime, pawing or nipping at you, too. Other signs that your cat wants to play include:

  • Ears and whiskers pointing forward
  • Tail pointing up
  • Pupils dilating 
  • Walking with an arched back
  • Crouching down with tail up

Saying that’s enough. If you pet your cat and it licks you, it may be letting you know it’s done with attention. While you may consider these licks a request for more affection, your cat may paw or bite you if you don’t stop.

Cats enjoy engaging in affection, but they each have their limits. You may pet the same part of your cat’s body for too long, for example, or touch a hurt area. If you do, they'll let you know it. In addition to licking, a cat that doesn't want to be petted anymore might show other signs, including:

  • Tail or ears flicking
  • Ears flattened backward
  • Acting aggressively
  • Walking away 

Sign of comfort. When your cat licks or grooms you, it may be letting you know it's comfortable around you, feeling quite relaxed and content. It may also be happy to be in your company.‌

Feeling stressed. Some cats are anxiety-prone, and most are likely to lick and groom more when they're stressed. If you notice that your cat is grooming itself or you more than usual, talk to your vet. Your cat may need medication or treatment to help it stay calm. 

More About Cats Licking and Grooming

At some point, you may notice that your cat’s tongue feels rough and prickly. That's because it has small barbs called papillae that face backward. These barbs serve several purposes for your cat:

  • Storing saliva in the scoop shapes
  • Scooping water while drinking‌
  • Removing dirt from fur while licking and grooming

When licking and grooming is obsessive. Cats tend to lick places on their body that are itchy or painful. Your cat may have an injury or something bothering their skin. Signs that your cat’s licking is obsessive may include frequent hairballs, bald spots, or fur loss. Too much licking can break open your cat’s skin and lead to infection. If your cat licks and grooms a single spot too much, take them to the vet for a checkup.

Other Cat Behaviors

Cats have other common behaviors that are natural instincts. Sometimes these behaviors are disruptive or concerning. Know what behaviors are normal and when you should be concerned.‌

Normal cat behaviors. Cats hiss, swat, and chase to communicate. These behaviors may seem aggressive, but they're normal. In the wild, cats are predators. You may notice your cat stalking and chasing bugs, birds, and other small animals. These behaviors are not concerning as long as your cat isn’t causing harm or acting aggressively all the time.

Abnormal cat behaviors. During routine visits, your cat’s veterinarian asks questions about your cat's behavior. Address any concerns you have. Don’t assume that bad behavior will go away on its own. Examples of behavior concerns include:

  • Urinating or pooping outside of the litter box
  • Spraying urine to mark territory
  • Acting overly fearful
  • Problems interacting with other pets and children in the home‌
  • Being very destructive

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Animal Path: “Why Does My Cat Lick Me Then Bite Me?”

Blue Cross for Pets: “Why does my cat lick me?”

Cat Vets: “Feline Behavior Guidelines.”

Cornell Feline Health Center: “Cats that Lick Too Much.”

RSPCA Queensland: “It must be love! The ways cats show their affection.”

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