Why does my cat lick himself where I have stroked him?

Why does my cat lick himself where I have stroked him or petted him (I don’t like the verb “to pet”)? This happens a lot. I haven’t seen an answer listed on the internet on the first page of Google search results. Instead, Google finds answers on why cats lick their human companion. I don’t want an answer to that as I have a page on that topic.

So, why do many cats almost immediately lick the exact same spot where you have stroked or petted your cat?

Charlie who licks himself after being stroked

Charlie who licks himself after being stroked

There are two theories that I know of (if you have others, I’d love to hear them in a comment):

  1. Your cat licks his fur to taste your scent, which you deposited on his fur. That is, it is a form of “scent exchange”. Cats like to lick us and it would seem to be a similar process. If a cat licks us, he is grooming us, and at the same time he is tasting our scent that is on our skin. In conclusion, the first possibility is that your cat is seeking a comfort zone and reassurances about your presence.
  2. Your cat is licking his fur to remove your scent. He only wants his scent on his fur. Your scent (in perspiration etc.) is troublesome to him. In short he is cleaning himself.

About 3 hours ago I was sitting in my armchair with my cat, Charlie, and we were looking at each other. There was a deep friendship in his eyes and I am not anthropomorphizing my cat. It wasn’t just the way he looked it was the whole package. We were together and there was a connection.

Of course, I touched him, stroked his head, he rubbed his face on my hand. He likes to do that. He’ll rub his nose on my hand quite hard. It is done with some force and commitment. That is him depositing scent on me, my hand.

Then I stroke his body near his shoulder. Almost immediately he begins to lick the exact area where I have stroked him and rested my hand. I like to leave my hand on him for a while. He likes that and purrs. When I look at him, he talks to me. I only have to look at him for him to recognise my presence and vocalise it.

Well, I have provided some background information to when Charlie licks the same place that I have petted (stroked and touched). What do you think? Do you think he is tasting my scent and getting a nice feeling of reassurance from that or is his removing my scent to put his coat back to the same state it was in before I touched and stroked him? Personally, I have to conclude that the reason is item 1 above – he is tasting me.

Mutual Grooming

Lastly, I have to say that sometimes when you stroke your cat, soon afterward he will lick (groom) himself in a different place to where you stroked him. On that basis it appears that stroking a cat stimulates self-grooming. Stroking your cat is like another cat licking him. This probably gets him thinking about grooming the other cat and himself.

Conclusion: stroking a cat sets off grooming behavior. It may be reciprocal behavior. He gets groomed and then has an obligation to groom the groomer. Mutual grooming.

This is actually and associated point to make. When you stroke a cat is stimulates an urge to eat sometimes. This is probably a throwback to kittenhood when mother cat grooms her kitten and the kitten feels secure and suckles. That is my theory for what is is worth.

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Why does my cat lick himself where I have stroked him? — 11 Comments

  1. I think you are right but I think both theories are right, it just depends on the particular moment. I notice if I stroke Lilly after she’s had a good long post meal clean and she’s all neat and tidy and squeeky clean then she re-cleans that same spot. But other moments are more like the one you described in the article and it’s clearly not for the same reason and its in a very different way. Cleaning has alot of order to it. Red used to leave the base of his tail til last. He was a very systematic cleaner of his long fur. I think you’re right Michael with both of those reasons. The underlying point being that when we touch our cats they are smelling and tasting us alot more than we can imagine. Infact I believe cats have this way of tasting the air, the scientific name oof which I forgot, but they will open their mouth and breath both through their mouth and nose whilst sort of tasting and smelling at the same time. There’s a name for this I promise 🙂 – So petting and all that has this very major dimension to them. I honestly think sometimes they want to smell and taste whereas other times the totally don’t and are not in the mood. Jusy in the same way for a human, sometimes it’s nice to get a back massage (quite alot of the time probably) but there are also times when one doesn’t want that. For a cat its the same except it has this extra layer of scent smell/taste to it. When I get home from work and my feet are particularly hot and I take of my shoes, Lilly gets all excited about sticking her face in my sweaty steamy shoes and rubs all over them. I guess she missed me and is glad I’m home 🙂 – she’s a real big scent consuming cat. I think animals can even smell if you are scared and perhaps if you are angry or in a good or bad mood lets say – if they know you well then its possible I would guess. So according to that theory I’m sure they don’t like certain of your smells and they do ike certain others, perhaps based partly on mood but there’s obviously so many other things that effect and change your day to day scent starting with diet and going on from there in to things like where you have been that day, whether you are warm or cold, if you have just washed. I dont think they like clean humans and clean houses. When I vaccum I feel a bit bad because I am taking away little dust bunnies and various smells and dust that has built up over the previous week or more. When it’s all clean and tidy there is less to stimulate them. Cats are just so smell oriented I guess. Some cats want your scent when its cuddling time but would rather sleep facing the other way in a ball to be in their own scent although near you. Other cats like to sleep with their nose right infront of your nose and mouth. They seem to all be different and individual in that respect. Perhaps they lick off yoru scent when its mixed with something they dont like but vice versa when its mixed with something new they like or are sort of tasting for the first time. Like trying to single out a flavour in a new dish, sometimes you take quite a number of bites so you can try and focus on it and work out what it is.

    I guess all I am saying is the world of smells and tastes with regard to a cat and his or her caretaker is a complex and ever changing thing. I’d love to know how varied the smell of my hands can be to my cats and what that means to them. I also wonder if humans release all that much of their scent through their hands – it doesn’t seem a likely place.

    • Nice thought. Perhaps it is more complicated that I suggested. The reasons may vary. I agree cats do smell the air. They open their mouths and suck in air that passes over a sensory organ in the roof of their mouth that is particularly sensitive to scent particles. It is the Flehmen response and the organ is the Jacobson’s organ. Cats rely on smell and scents to a high degree. As Dan said it is a form of “sight”.

      • Thanks for that – I couldn’t remember the name of the organ or the name of the process/response. I’m terrible with names 🙂 “a form of sight” is a really nice way to put it.

  2. Interesting, i always wondered why they did that. I always thought they did that as a sign saying that they love us. I always knew they were grooming as well. That sure was a long comment from marc. Interesting to read things, when you haven’t seen things in awhile even though i got these messages. I wish i could write a long comment, but i always find it hard and run out of things to say.

  3. Whenever I’m stroking my cat, he’ll start to wash. Not where I’ve been stroking him (or petting, I think people in the US call it?), just wherever he can reach, like his front paws. Any idea why? Is my stroking him bothering him?

    • Hi Rachel. This is not bothering him and it is quite normal. I do have a page on this by the way which you can read here. If he is washing where you have not been stroking him is probably because in stroking him you have set him off and motivated him to self-groom anywhere.

  4. I have a domestic longhaired cat who is two years old. She is incredibly tiny – she sits easily on two hands. We rescued her from the blue cross, and she is CRAZY affectionate. When i stroke her for a couple of minutes she will climb my front to sit on my shoulder. Whats different though that i have never noticed on a different cat is that she will chase off other cats (we have 3 and two dogs) that try to say hi. That includes the dogs. Is that normal??

    • It is normal in so far as each individual cat has his/her own personality. Is she chasing off the others when she is on your shoulder? That is the way I interpret your comment.

      She is very attached to you. She is perhaps a bit insecure and needs to be with you and doesn’t want that to be interfered with. She likes sitting on you high up. This indicates possible insecurity. She is reassured when with you.

      It all depends on the cat. A cat’s personality is formed through inheritance and experience. Perhaps she became anxious at the Blue Cross. Having discovered the pleasures of your excellent company she wants more and she wants in alone.

      I’d guess that she will become more relaxed but if she has been with you for a while that may not happen. If she is fairly new to your home I suspect she’ll change in time. Thanks Shadow for visiting and sharing.

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