4 reasons why your cat licks herself where you have petted her

Stroking a cat can encourage the cat to self-groom
Stroking a cat can encourage the cat to self-groom
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A few times I have endeavoured to answer the question as to why cats lick themselves where you pet them. It’s a perennial question and one which fascinates a lot of people. We don’t know for sure what the answer is but I think I now have the more credible answer.

There are four possible reasons, one of which I believe is the correct one.

  1. The first reason is that a cat likes to taste the scent of your body so she licks that part of her fur where you have stroked her. This allows her to taste your scent which pleases her. I don’t particularly like this theory.
  2. The second reason is that cats like to remove your scent from their fur after you have deposited it on them. This is opposite to the reason put forward above. Once again I don’t think this theory is the great one.
  3. The third theory is that cats like to smooth their fur after you have ruffled it slightly when stroking them. This might be correct but even when the fur is not ruffled or displaced your cat may still lick that particular spot on their body. Therefore I do not think that this theory is correct.
  4. The fourth theory is that when you pet your cat by stroking her on her body, she perceives it as another cat licking her. She perceives it as another cat grooming her. This is called allogrooming by scientists. Being the recipient of grooming by another cat your cat is encouraged to groom herself. It motivates her to do some self-grooming. It stimulates that thought in her head to do it herself.This, I believe, is the reason why cats lick themselves where they have just been petted. I believe that this idea is reinforced by the fact that domestic cats tend to lick your hand after you have stroked them with that hand. It’s a sign that you are encouraging grooming. A slight counterargument is the fact that cats sometimes lick the spot where you have held them with your hand. So you’re not actually petting them with that hand but simply placing your hand upon them. However, I believe that this is perceived by cats as allogrooming.

This reason came to me today when I was stroking my cat. His reaction gave me the impression that I had planted into his head the idea that he might groom himself. Perhaps that possibility was there in the first place. In other words he was thinking about it. By stroking him I had catalysed that thought into an action. This may explain why cats do not always lick themselves where you have petted them.

If a cat is approaching the time when she might groom herself then she might bring that moment forward when you stroke her. These are my thoughts on the subject and I believe that the fourth reason is the correct one.

Has anybody visiting this site seen a better reason? If so please relay it in a comment.

3 thoughts on “4 reasons why your cat licks herself where you have petted her”

  1. I think all of the reasons are likely to be true. Cats are complex, their behaviours are not single isolated, measurable events. Environment (we are included in that) plays a huge part in the behaviours of all species.

    Mungo often sits on top of a tall scratchpole behind my partner’s armchair. Mungo fixes partner’s head still with a gentle claw, then gives partner’s head (not much hair) a seriously thorough rasping. Ten minutes isn’t unusual. Mungo doesn’t groom himself during or after, nor does he elicit stroking from my partner. It seems to be a purposeful act that Mungo enjoys. If partner tries to pet Mungo, Mungo will push the hand away. Maybe Mungo is carrying out a parenting role, does he think partner’s head is filthy or does he just enjoy the taste? A one sided allogrooming activity?

  2. I like the forth reason too, but I would add a possibility. While you’re not necessarily dirtying them, it might feel like it, so they clean that spot just in case. Also to keep all the hairs going in the same direction… sort of like when someone pats you on your head, you have the tendency to run your hand over it afterward, just in case your hair is out of place. We all like to look good and I think that goes especially for cats. I think though that it’s the cleanliness thing, or the desire to keep all the hair smelling the same way (like their spit, not your hand). Maybe?

    • To reiterate, I like the fourth reason, because it may come from mom teaching them things, they copy everything mom does, so the allogrooming.


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