By now, with the advent of the internet as a major source of information, I would expect that 90% of cat owners know the answer to this question but it may be useful to go over it once again. Most cat owners will probably say that their cat licks them because it is a feline version of a kiss. I’m not convinced about that. It is certainly a sign of affection because it is a form of allogrooming which is when one cat licks another. In this instance the cat is licking a human that they relate to as a cat.
So we can guarantee that it is a sign of affection. In other words, this feline behaviour is rooted in sociability and friendship. It is said that cats who don’t like each other never groom each other but then again, it is also said that cats who have quarrelled sometimes groom each other to make up.
In that same vein of thought, some experts believe that cats licking their owners may be an attempt to apologise for something that the cat thinks that he has done wrong. The owner may not know about it but for the cat it has some significance.
When a cat licks his owner’s hand with one paw on the hand, Dr Bradshaw writes that it might be an attempt to exercise control over the cat’s human companion. However, he says that he is speculating because he admits that scientists have not yet fully investigated why cats lick their owners.
I think the last observation is quite important because on the internet you see millions of answers to the question and they written very confidently but the bottom line is that we’re not completely sure. I would argue that there’s one thing about which we are sure and that is it is an act of friendship, an act which helps cement a friendship and create a stronger bond. It occurs entirely naturally in a cat.
What might be the human equivalent? Perhaps holding hands with your partner or giving them a hug. Or putting your arm around their shoulder. Perhaps cats are driven to licking their owner as a sign of affection because they are unable to communicate that affection through their vocalisations. We are, after all, unable to communicate in the usual way. We have to rely on body language, routines and some basic vocalisations which accompany behaviours and body language.
There is one last possibility why cats like to lick us and that is they like the taste of salt on our skins. However, as far as we know, cats don’t have a strong preference for salty flavours.
There are some natural barriers to interacting with your cat. Take for example play. For a cat, playing means grabbing with claws out and biting. Another cat will accept it but might complain but if you play with your cat with your hand there is a good chance that it will be the last time you do it.