For me the answer to the question, “why does my cat lick me?” mainly comes from personal observation.
My cat looks upon me as a mother cat. All domestic cats do the same. Our cats are kept in a state of perpetual kittenhood with us as we provide for them and unwittingly dominate them by our sheer presence. Kittens are licked by their true (cat) mothers during the early days.
When I stroke my cat, she thinks I am licking her as her mother did. It feels that way and is a very similar action. Note: at the time this article was first published (around 2010) I was living with a female cat. I now live with a male.
Photo by tilaneseven – this is a Flickr photographer
In return my cat will lick my hand sometimes. It is a friendly return gesture in recognition of my friendly gesture. I might not be stroking her, in fact. It might be a human form of friendship that she has picked up as being equivalent to her mother’s lick. For example, I might talk to her quietly and cuddle her. There are a whole range of intimate and friendly gestures that might provoke her to lick me and it is not always on the hand. She sometimes licks my face as is the case for the person in the photograph.
There might be other reasons as to why my cat licks me. It might be the taste of my skin (maybe there is something on my hand or my skin might be salty through sweating) but this is relatively rare for me compared to the friendly exchange of linking.
This is when cats rub their flanks against our legs. It is also an act of friendship and depositing their scent onto us. It is a kind of merging of cat and human. Our scent (body odour) is also deposited on our cat. It is called scent exchange. It all helps to reinforce the bond.
The reason why they are most likely to lick the hand and not other parts of the body is the obvious one; it is the most accessible. Sometimes cats like other parts such as the face as seen in the photo which is often also accessible. As mentioned, cats are also attracted to our perspiration and our scent. They like tasting both. This is also part of the bonding process.
It all turns of the bond between us. It follows that if there is a weak relationship cats will be disinclined to lick their owner. This points to the conclusion that cats lick their owner when there is a close relationship. It’s a symptom of the nature of the relationship.
Sometimes my cat will do a lick/bite. The lick extends to a very gentle nibble on the hand or even my face if it is near her face. You can see a mother’s lick going to a gentle bite (loving bite) in this video of F1 Savannah Cat MAGIC. It is about 2/3rds of the way into the video. This is also a sign of affection. The lick goes together with the love bite.
I have to say that sometimes the love bite can get a little out of hand if the cat is over-motivated! It can be irritating to some people. Sometimes I can get a bit irritated by it. Perhaps one issue here is that when cats nibble each other they feel it less because they have a nice coating of fur over their bodies whereas we have bare skin. It highlights a problem in our relationship with cats; we are not cats! We know it but our cats don’t always recognise that simple fact.
Human licks cat!
Sometimes (rarely) cat owners reciprocate the bonding allogrooming lick. It is an example of going to extreme you might think. Also, there is a product on the market nowadays which is a brush you can place between your teeth and brush your cat with it – see image below. This is meant to allow the cat’s caregiver to behave like a mother cat without actually licking their cat which the lady below does. Is it okay to lick your cat? Almost always yes, it is okay but you might lick up a flea and ingest it. This might give you a tapeworm! The cat flea is the vector for tapeworms as the eggs are harboured inside them. It is how cats get tapeworms. It is also just conceivable that you can get toxoplasmosis from your cat. Personally, I would not do it.
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