So, you open your eyes, having rudely been pulled from a dream you would have rather continued. Only to find yourself face to face with Fluffy, your cat. It is the repeated sensation of the rough textured surface of his fleshy pink tongue as it leaves a fine warm but damp trail across your brow, that has brought you from your blissful slumber.

This unpleasant experience has become a bit of a habit for Fluffy. It has left you asking what has possessed your domesticated miniature lion to begin, and continue, this odd ritual. You have hit Google on your lunch break for answers and spoken to friends and family. But so far you are more confused than enlightened. It’s time to shine some light on this most peculiar of feline habits.

Why do they do it?

This question can be split into three main reasons:

1. Affection

Mother cats whether domesticated, feral, wild or big cats will lick their kittens as a sign of affection. Similarly, adult cats both familiarly related and unrelated individuals, groom each other (known as ‘allogrooming’) to strengthen their social bonds.

If your pet cat is licking you, then it could indicate that they see you as part of their social circle. They want to express their affection towards you. Congratulations, this is a high honour in the cat world. If only all us cat owners could be this lucky.  

2. They like your taste

If you started this paragraph in a mild panic that your cat is actually looking at you like some furry version of Hannibal Lecter and is biding their time before serving you up with chianti and fava beans … do not worry. Some cats develop a penchant for the taste of the salts that build up naturally in human sweat. 

However, before you get too carried away and consider licensing your personalised odour as the newest Lynx body spray, you should know one thing. Cats are fickle creatures. Some just don’t care how you taste. Indeed, some cats are all about the creams, ointments and sprays us humans like to layer on ourselves. For the Instagram savvy amongst us, the disruption of that groomed image is certainly a first world problem.

The problem we should concern ourselves with is the toxicity of the contents some of these products can contain. For example, certain psoriasis creams are toxic to cats. Contact your vet if you have any concerns. 

3. Anxiety

Just when you thought those visits to the psychiatrist’s couch to deal with your growing angst over the mother-in-law were starting to pay off, you suddenly find out your cat could be having problems too. Where you might have taken to a bottle of your favourite Argentinian red to alleviate your anxiety. Mr Fluffy will often take to overgrooming and licking to ease the pain. Cats can react to the simplest of things such as a change in food or litter brand, moving house, a new animal in the household or stress in their human servant hierarchy. However, it may also indicate an underlying health issue including physical pain. 

It is important to attempt to differentiate licking due to affection/your taste from stress-related licking. Fluffy’s potentially stressful behaviour unchecked could escalate to include abnormal urine spraying, aggression, and unmanaged stress that can result in physical illness, including cystitis. Contact your vets if you are concerned your cat’s licking may be due to stress. 

Why does it hurt when my cat licks me?

While “some” people might enjoy the interaction with their pet, and we are not here to judge. For the rest of us it is the rough hooks on your cat’s tongue that can make this licking rather unpleasant. These hooks are actually an ingenious evolutionary development that, when grooming, assists in untangling their coat as well as removing debris. They also enhance a cat’s ability to eat and lap up liquid.

How to stop my cat licking me?

Some people advocate applying an unpleasant tasting substance to their skin. However, this could result in you creating an adverse effect on your relationship with your cat, as they can start to associate you with the unpleasant experience. The same is true of ‘punishing’ your cat for licking you. No one needs a disgruntled feline in their lives.

A better strategy is to redirect their licking behaviour towards other positive associations; for example, moving their head away from you before beginning to stroke and groom them. If this is unsuccessful, mimic something your cat can do very well – moving away and ignoring them. Do this whenever the licking behaviour starts, which may allow your cat to associate the licking with losing your attention, teaching them that this is undesirable behaviour. However, if your cat is trying to drive you from the house, then they will be pleased.

If you think your cat’s excessive licking may be due to stress or anxiety, contact your vet for advice on managing your pet’s stress. If necessary they can direct you towards a pet behaviourist. This is animal shrink with just a smaller scratch proof couch.

Now that you know a little more about why Mr Fluffy’s morning regime of a facial massage could be happening, the choice is yours … learn to love the lick, change the locks, improve the ying and yang of your home, have a wash or embrace your make-up free spirit. Good luck. 

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