On a lazy Saturday afternoon, you probably love nothing more than a good snuggle with your kitty. When your cat snuggles in your lap, there's no better sensation than stroking that soft fur and hearing your cat happily purr. However, purring isn't the only way that our cats respond to petting. Some cats lick us. It doesn't matter what position they're in or where they are being pet, without fail, our cats have to find a way to lick their humans in response to being pet. And why is that? We dug into the body language and science behind our cats' tendency to lick us when we pet them to understand a little of their behavior.
What exactly does it mean when my cat licks me?
First of all, it's important to know that cats lick for more reasons than we humans might imagine. We tend to usually just classify licks as "kisses," and, while kitty licks are a sign of affection, they also represent much more than that. Cats don't just lick you to say, "I love you," but also to claim you as their own. Their saliva contains pheromones that leave a scent trail that suggests to other animals that you are taken. They also lick as an important part of social bonding and grooming habits. Cats often socialize by grooming one another, and they want to socialize with their humans too.
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What does petting mean to your cat?
Because cats are our pets, we naturally assume that they love being pet. However, the truth, as everything with cats, is a little more complicated. A study in the Applied Animal Behavior Science journal analyzed where and how cats like to be pet, because there wasn't a lot of scientific evidence about cats and physical touch.
For the study, scientists filmed cats' reactions to being petted in different areas, as well as their reactions to their own humans versus strangers. The study showed that cats prefer to be pet in the areas where they might practice social grooming – their cheeks, their ears, between their eyes and their chins. So for your kitty, it's safe to assume that when you pet them, they're experiencing similar social cues and bonding that they experience when they socially groom with other felines.
When your cat licks you while you pet her, one of the most common reasons is that she's trying to socially groom. As in the study above, cats love to be pet in certain areas, because those areas are likely associated with their instincts to create social bonds by grooming one another. Though you're not a cat, your cat may feel like you're improving and building on your social bonds when you pet her. And perhaps she wants to return the favor.
But cats don't groom one another with their paws, they use their tongues. In fact, that's what a cat's tongue is made for. When you feel her reach out and graze you with her sandpaper-like tongue and wonder why it feels like that, the answer is for grooming. According to assistant curator of great cats at the National Zoo, Leigh Pitsko, "Their tongue is actually like sandpaper. They have tiny hooks called papillae. When they glide across the fur, it acts like a comb." She explains that these hooks help to detangle fur, so they work perfectly for cats' fur, even if they feel a bit rough on human skin.
Unless your hands and arms are incredibly hairy, your kitty probably isn't doing much to keep you well groomed. However, she is doing you another service. She is attempting to reaffirm and strengthen your social bond as she would with one of her own kind. When another cat licks her as part of social grooming, she would lick back. She's trying to pay you back for the favor of petting her by offering you a little grooming in return.
She wants your pets only for herself.
A cat's licks and affection may not only be a generous way to show their humans they care. They may also be marking their territory and signaling to other animals that you're their property. While we often think of a pet marking its territory through peeing, cats can also leave behind pheromones in their saliva. This scent marks you and shows how much your cat wants to connect with you.
Cats are big on family, and they like to mingle their scents with the smells of their family members to create a unified, family scent. This helps them to build their family group and feel comfortable. When your kitty licks you, she's inviting you into her family and creating a family scent.
So, to answer your question, the licking is perfectly normal.
Overall, your cat's tendency to lick you whenever you pet her is a positive sign. She is most likely licking you to grow closer and form tighter bonds. So you can feel good each time you feel that rough little sandpaper tongue that you and your kitty are becoming closer and happier and snugglier together.