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Do cats try to clean humans?

Why Do Cats Lick People?

From showing affection to marking territory, felines lick for various reasons.

  • University of South Carolina

Laura Moss is a journalist with more than 15 years of experience writing about science, nature, culture, and the environment.

Updated June 22, 2022

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Adult cats spend about half their waking hours grooming themselves. While friendly cats and littermates often groom each other, felines may also groom their humans by licking their skin or hair. Sometimes they may even nibble or suckle clothing and drool profusely.

Why Do Cats Lick People?

There are a number of reasons why your cat might lick you, as its owner. It could be to show affection. Just as mother cats lick their young, grooming communicates a cat’s fondness for a person, as well as a sense of belonging and a social bond.

Licking marks you as a member of the animal’s family and spreads the cat’s scent, even if you don’t detect it. Adult cats scratch certain places to mark their territory, so licking your skin or hair is another way of claiming you.

If your cat grooms your hair after a shower or licks your hands after you’ve applied lotion, it could be that your shampoo or lotion has an enticing scent or taste. If you’re not freshly bathed, the cat may be attracted to the taste of your sweaty, salty skin.

A cat who licks excessively may have been orphaned or weaned prematurely. Some experts believe that kittens taken from their mother too early show infantile behaviors like this as adults. They may develop an oral fixation of sorts and lick excessively as a way to self-soothe.

Licking, nibbling, and suckling can be a response to stress, anxiety, or illness, or it may simply be a comforting behavior for the feline. Your cat may be begging for attention through licking, and some cats prefer negative attention, like getting pushed away, to none at all. Usually stress leads to more self-grooming, but occasionally it can be directed toward cat owners.

In rare cases, these actions can develop into a compulsive disorder. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, a behavior is typically considered compulsive if a cat has trouble stopping, even when you try to distract him with another activity.

If your older cat has only recently started licking or suckling you, take him to the veterinarian. Hyperthyroidism is common in older cats and can cause many behavioral changes.

How to Stop Licking

A cat relaxes on a chair licking catnip

If you find your cat’s grooming or suckling is so frequent that it’s bothersome, there are ways to get your cat to stop licking.

The easiest way to do this is to get up and walk away whenever your cat begins to lick. Don’t move so abruptly that you frighten him—simply remove him and leave the room. For such behavior modification to be effective, you’ll likely have to keep this up for several weeks or months. Avoid speaking to the cat in these moments, as interaction with you may be interpreted as affirmation of the cat’s actions.

You may distract your cat with treats or toys, or provide him with something to chew or suckle instead of you, such as grass, catnip, or a thin piece of rawhide. Your feline friend may simply require more exercise or mental stimulation, so extra playtime can help curb the undesirable behavior.

If you suspect your cat’s licking or suckling is stress-related, try to determine what provokes it. It could be a recent household change, such as the loss of a feline friend, other family pets, or visitors to the home.

Once you’ve identified the trigger, help your cat find a way to cope. For example, if visitors or a new pet are making your cat anxious, make sure your pet has a safe place to hide where he can be left alone.

Most importantly, as you work to discourage this behavior, don’t raise your voice or physically punish the animal. Grooming and suckling is often caused by stress, so this could actually intensify these actions.

If your pet’s behavior seems interfere with the animal’s quality of life, talk to your veterinarian. A vet may suggest consulting an animal behaviorist to determine what’s causing the licking and suckling and how best to resolve the issue.

Why This Matters to Treehugger

At Treehugger, we are advocates of animal welfare, including our pets and other domestic animals. The better we understand our cats, the better we can support and protect their well-being. We hope our readers will adopt rescue pets instead of shopping from breeders or pet stores and will also consider supporting local animal shelters.

Why Do Some Cats Groom Their Owner’s Hair?

Amy Shojai, CABC, Animal Behavior Expert for The Spruce Pets

Amy Shojai, CABC, is an animal behavior expert and award-winning writer with over 25 years of hands-on experience training and caring for cats and dogs. She has written 27 books on animal care, been named CWA Friskies Writer of the Year, and appeared on Animal Planet as a pet expert.

Updated on 02/27/22
Reviewed by

Bartley Harrison

Dr. Bartley Harrison is a veterinarian with more than 15 years of professional veterinary experience treating dogs, cats, rabbits, ferrets, birds, and small mammals, with a specific focus on Emergency Medicine. Dr. Harrison is part of The Spruce Pets’ veterinary review board.

cat playing with owners hair

Cats are diligent in grooming themselves, but some cats also actively groom their owner’s hair. A «beautician cat» might perch on the back of a chair or above your head in bed and comb through your hair with its teeth and paws. Sometimes the cat will even hold your head steady or object if you move out of reach.

Cats’ grooming behavior can be a physical and social issue. Their physical and emotional health, as well as traits of instinct, influence how a cat acts and reacts. Think of this as the H.I.S.S. Test, which stands for health, instinct, stress, and symptom solvers.


Grooming keeps skin and fur healthy and clean. Cats spend a good portion of their awake time in some form of grooming behavior.


Kittens begin to groom themselves as youngsters. Much of the grooming behavior is instinctive, but it’s also influenced by the environment. If Mom is a neatnik, then chances are the babies will also grow up with clean «cattitudes.» But slovenly Mom-cats may pass on their grooming indifference to offspring. Mom-cats also groom their babies to keep them clean, and social cats groom each other and share communal scent.


Cats also use grooming to relieve stress. You could compare self-grooming for stress relief to a human getting a relaxing massage. Other times, cats can use «power grooming» as a way to intimidate other felines and chase them away from a favorite territory.

Symptoms, Signs, and Solutions

If your cat is grooming your hair, it is likely to be using grooming as social behavior. Cats groom other cats in their family group when they like each other and have friendly relationships. The licking also spreads scent, so the cats that sleep together and groom each other smell alike. This creates a sort of «family perfume» that identifies each other as safe and friendly. If the cat suddenly starts out of the blue, maybe she likes the smell of your new shampoo.

When your cats groom you, they aren’t interested in creating proper feline hairdos (well, maybe some cats have a style in mind). More likely, cats that target an owner’s hair simply trigger on the «furry part» of the human and want to share the family scent with proper grooming.

The cat might receive some sort of reinforcement that encourages them to repeat the behavior. Do you talk to the cat and pet it during this grooming? Or it may be enough simply to respond if your cat taps your head to get you to move back into range if you move away.

The behavior can become a bit aggravating when overdone. Some cats pull out the owner’s hair or chew it off, just like they can over-groom themselves from stress. The pulling/chewing behavior may be an extension of the wool-sucking sorts of targeting Oriental heritage cats often seem to indulge. That behavior may stem from a nutritional deficit in some cases. The potential for hairballs exists if your cat swallows long strands of human hair. If a cat seems to want to eat your hair, it’s a good reason to go to the veterinarian for a check-up.

You can offer kitty a substitute such as a fuzzy stuffed toy, and shoo the cat away from your head to prevent being snatched bald. But in most cases, consider a cat grooming a human’s hair to be a huge compliment and gesture of affection, sort of the kitty equivalent of a petting session. Don’t worry, the cat won’t expect you to become kitty beauticians with a lick and a promise. Petting will do.

Why Do Cats Lick You?

When it comes to dogs, we generally accept them licking us with their slobbery tongues as a sign of affection. But is the same true for cats? When a cat licks you, is it also a sign of affection?

cat standing by pet door in window

Unlike dogs, a cat’s tongue is known for its rough, sandpaper-like texture. One swipe can irritate your skin, or leave you feeling a little scratched up. While a cat’s lick is unpleasant, it’s also not a sign of distrust or hatred either.

Generally, when your cat licks you, it’s not a secret code about their true feelings for you. Typically, they’re just being a cat.

However, there are a few common reasons why cats would want to lick you.. While it’s nothing to be concerned about, it’s still fun to know why your cat decided to give you a tiny lick.

So what are the four reasons why your cat would want to lick you?

Your Cat Thinks You’re Dirty

This is the most common reason people believe a cat would want to lick you. If you aren’t aware, cats generally view humans are bigger, less competent versions of themselves. And they can often be a little horrified with how bad we are at being felines.

Your cat might view you as another kitten, who aren’t known for keeping themselves clean. And your cat probably hasn’t seen you lick the dirt off of you either, making them believe that you are unhygienic. So it will be your cat’s job as the responsible parent of the brood to groom you.

This is where your cat’s rough tongue comes in handy. Cat tongues are covered with tiny, hook-shaped spined called papillae, which catch onto a cat’s fur as they lick themselves. The spines are great for not only detangling fur, but also helping saliva wash away dirt.

Your Cat Wants To Mark You As Their Territory

Dogs are known for peeing in places that they want to mark as their own, but cats have a far more refined method of marking an object as their own. To claim ownership over a toy, chair, or even a human, cats will try to use the scent glands in their cheeks, feet, and tail to cover it with a special scent.

Licking is only one way your cat can spread their scent. Your cat may also rub their bodies against yours or nuzzle you with their face.

While it may seem demeaning to allow your cat to claim you as their property, this is actually a huge honor and a sign that your cat loves you dearly!

Your Cat May Have Been Weaned Too Early

If you haven’t raised a cat since kittenhood before, you may not know that separating a kitten from their mother before they are at least 8 weeks old can results in long-term stress (though other groups recommend waiting until a kitten is at least 12 to 14 weeks of age).

Cats have many ways that they deal with stress, some that you may already be familiar with, such as kneading and sucking on soft things nearby. But they also can work through stress by licking soft things as well.

Soft things can include anything from their bed to a soft blanket, but in this case, you might find your cat putting their mouths on your finger or earlobe. This behavior is so common that it’s often called “wool-sucking.”

To reduce the chances of long term stress and wool-sucking, make sure any kitten that you adopt is not adopted too early.

Your Cat Just Might Want Your Attention

When you think about it, licking is one of the most effective ways to win someone’s attention. A cat’s rough tongue is hard to ignore and an experience pet own may be able to ignore a cat’s meowing for longer than a cat may prefer.

Generally, if your cat is licking you for attention, it’s only for minor issues. They may want you to feed them sooner, give them space to cuddle, retrieve a lost toy from a hard to reach spit, or just want you to empty the litterbox.

However, make sure you’re on the lookout for any significant signs of stress accompanying your cat’s need for attention. This can include refusing to eat food, increased potty accidents around the home, and hiding from the rest of their family.

All in all, your cat licking you isn’t a major cause for concern. If anything, it’s a sign that your cat cares about you deeply. But you should always be vigilant for any signs of distress, especially if your cat is coming to you for comfort or attention more than normal.

Mia Daniele

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Pets: I have a fluffy, 14 year old chow-collie mix with red fur named Rosso. He’s very stubborn and has the standoffish personality of a cat.
Fun stuff: I am a hot chocolate connoisseur.

Pets: I have a fluffy, 14 year old chow-collie mix with red fur named Rosso. He’s very stubborn and has the standoffish personality of a cat.
Fun stuff: I am a hot chocolate connoisseur.

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