Why does a cat lick her face when it is not dirty?
The cat does not lick her face. They lick their nose leather; the tip of their nose because it is the easiest part of their anatomy to get to. It is a displacement activity. In doing this activity the cat displaces their feelings of anxiety, uncertainty or unease often because they are motivated to do two conflicting things or because the circumstances in which they find themselves generate uncertainty. It is a very well-known behaviour in animals and in humans. Some animals nibble their paws or scratch behind an ear with a hind leg. Birds wipe their beaks on the branch. Chimpanzees might scratch their arms or their chins. And cats lick the tip of their noses.
There are a range of human equivalent displacement activities: licking the lips, biting fingernails, scratching the head and touching the face for example. Of these perhaps scratching the head is the most common. When humans do this, it is as if they are relieving an itch. There is no physical itch. There is a psychological itch or irritation; the result of being uncertain about what to do. Scratching the head relieves this slightly for a while.
In terms of animal welfare, it is said that displacement activities are evidence that an animal is motivated to perform a certain behaviour but the circumstances and environment in which they find themselves prevent them doing it. It is a sign of slight, transient stress I believe.
I see my cat licking his lips quite a lot and I think it is used in a more extensive way than the experts state. For example, if I have to do tell him not to come on my lap because I want to work on my computer and if I need to gently push him away, he might lick his lips. It’s a sign that he is unsure why I have pushed him away because it goes against the grain of our relationship. It should be said that I let him sit on my lap 99.9% of the time. It is just that sometimes I am in the middle of doing something particularly complicated and I can’t stop.
So, displacement activity in my cat displays a feeling of uncertainty and perhaps fleeting unease. Another example for many cats might be when a person places their head too close to the head of their cat. Normally cats don’t like this. It makes them feel uneasy. They might lick their nose in response.
Some more articles on ‘strange cat behavior’ are below.