Bridget is a long-time cat owner, cat sitter, and cat lover with years of feline research and hands-on experience.
Cats just love to groom themselves- we see them lapping at their own fur constantly, and it's a natural cat behavior. A cat typically will spend 30-40 percent of their day grooming themselves, in fact! But it's another story when the cat is seemingly trying to groom us and we have to cope with their scratchy little sandpaper-like tongues scraping our skin. If you've ever wondered why this happens, read on.
In their infancy, a kitten is helpless and will be groomed by their mother as a form of care and affection. This is a cat-to-cat behavior known as allgrooming, meaning grooming from one cat to another, and is shown between cats who aren't in competition and whom they trust. This behavior appears to be transferrable to humans, too, and thus it is theorized that our cats feel an instinct to groom us out of affection as well.
Taste Bud Sensitivity
Cats have very sensitive taste buds that can pick up scents from our skin. This might include the lotion we just put on, the food we recently consumed, our salty sweat or even pheromone secretions from another animal we touched. Licking us allows the cat to check out these smells that they find interesting.
Cats love their own scent! A cat sees it's own scent as a type of "airborne fingerprint" and they feel that their scent should overtake any other. Cats may groom other cats in order to remove the other cats' scent and add in their own instead. The idea could be the same idea with humans- cats want to deposit their own scent and get rid of ours to show ownership!
Licking also may mark you as part of their family or in-group, signaling that you have been claimed and letting other cats know that you belong to them.
Stress or Anxiety
Cats tend to groom even more than usual when they are feeling stressed or anxious and this can mean that they are licking us as a way to reduce stress as well. This is especially true after a change in environment such as a new home, the addition of a new pet or family member, or even a change in furniture arrangement which may upset the cat for a time and lead to increased licking. If your cat is suddenly licking you excessively, and especially if you can't identify a recent stressor in the cats life, consult with your vet to ensure there aren't any health reasons behind the increase in licking.