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.

My cat by my side while I write this article

My cat by my side while I write this article. Click it for a larger image. Photo: MikeB

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.

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Useful tag. Click to see the articles: Cat behavior

Note: sources for news articles are carefully selected but the news is often not independently verified.
Useful links
Anxiety - reduce it
FULL Maine Coon guide - lots of pages
Children and cats - important

Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 74-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare. If you want to read more click here.

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2 Responses

  1. tamara beinlich says:

    Mike wait till you see the size of this cat. The woman in 5’1 OMG. This cat is the size Main coon I saw in 1970 as a kid that beat up all the other cats including mine.

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