Why do cats lick people?

Cat licks person
Cat licks person. Photo: in public domain
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Millions of people have asked and answered the question: “Why do cats lick people?’. There are hundreds of websites answering it. I will throw my two pennies’ worth into the ring. I think the answer is obvious but it is interesting to see that Dr Bradshaw of Cat Sense writes:

“Many cats lick their owners on a regular basis, but scientists have not yet investigated why this should be” The book was published quite recently.

My thoughts and the thoughts of most people

Mothers lick their newborn kittens to wash them and when older to groom them. Siblings groom each other. Unrelated cats that are friendly to each other also engage in mutual grooming (allogrooming). Grooming another cat serves the function of cleaning the other cat and keeping the coat in good condition and it is a pleasant experience for the receiving cat. You can see that by the look on the faces of cats being groomed.

Mutual grooming also serves the function of bonding. This is bound to be the case because it is pleasant for the receiving cat, he or she is bound to want some more and be close to the grooming cat – and vice-versa. So when adult cats groom each other it serves two purposes as described.

Cat Allogrooming
Cat Allogrooming.

People who care for cats are normally seen as mother cats by their cats, I argue. This is because the person provides for the cat in all major aspects of life in a similar way that a true mother cat would for her offspring. The difference with the person/cat relationship is that the cat never grows up because the person provides for the cat all of his or her life.

Bearing in mind therefore that the human/cat relationship is a cat-to-cat relationship from the cat’s point of view, when our cat licks us he is licking a cat in an act of mutual grooming and bonding. In response we do not lick our cat. Shame really. We have a poor substitute; we stroke our cat. This serves the function of bonding but not maintaining our cat’s coat unless you do gentle flea combing which is like stroking and also serves to maintain the coat. Gentle and routine flea combing is probably the nearest we can get to licking our cat in return for her licking us.

Dr Bradshaw’s thoughts

He writes that it is possible that cats lick us because they like the salty taste but agrees that cats don’t particularly like the taste of salt and therefore dispenses with that theory. He proposes that licking us has a social purpose but specifically what is it? He agrees it has to do with affection for us because cats who dislike other cats never groom them. However, sometimes cats groom each other after a quarrel. For this reason he suggests that perhaps, on some occasions, a cat is apologising for something that he thinks he did wrong but which the owner has failed to recognise.

If a cat licks her owner and holds down the hand with a paw it may be an attempt at controlling the person. Dr Bradshaw leaves the door open to a better understanding of this form of feline behaviour. I see it more simplistically, I am afraid. It is about friendship and bonding.

Comments for
Why do cats lick people?

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Mar 06, 2012

Spot on Ruth NEW
by: Michael Yes, Ruth, you are right, stroking, brushing and combing all substitute licking. It is great for bonding.

Mar 05, 2012Cats NEW
by: Ruth Apparently, when we stroke a cat it feels to him like a giant tongue licking him.
I think that’s why cats love being stroked.
Tickling and scratching around a cat’s face and ears and under his chin is like the mother cat grooming him and cats love that.
They do need to be brushed and combed daily and if it’s made into a fun time it can be most enjoyable for both the cat and the person who loves him.

Kattaddorra signature Ruth


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