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Behavior

Why Cats Lick People: It's Not just a Matter of Taste
February 16, 2016 (published)
Laura Hedden, editor of VIN This Week

Licking Cat BigStock

When I was a kid, we had a black cat we called Spider. There weren't many things Spider enjoyed nearly as much as licking and sucking on chins and earlobes. He wasn't always gentle about it either... he was more like the owl in the old Tootsie Pop commercial - two or three licks and then CHOMP! One minute he'd be contentedly purring sweet nothings while 'nursing' on a chin or an earlobe and the next he'd latch on tight, hanging there like big, furry costume jewelry.

As kids we thought it was pretty funny and weird and I've always wondered why he did it. Was there some reason that he found those particular bits of flesh irresistible or was he just weird?

One answer might have been that he thought we tasted pretty good. When your body breaks down proteins from the foods you eat, ammonia and urea are produced, which are later in your sweat. Sweat also contains sugar and salts, such as sodium, chloride, and potassium. When your sweat evaporates, it can leave sweet or salty residue on your skin that animals can smell and/or taste. Maybe to Spider we were all just giant, walking, talking kitty treats.

Some cats do find our natural human ‘flavor’ to be pretty tasty, but things we put on our bodies also make us more appetizing to our feline friends. We usually attribute bizarre appetites to dogs since they’ve been known to eat stuff like kitty poop, shoes, rocks and other gross stuff, but sometimes cats also find the most unusual things to be delectable. If your cat seems attracted to licking areas where you apply lotions, cosmetics, or topical medications, it’s a good idea to check with your veterinarian to make sure they won't harm him. Some medicinal creams and topical hormones have been found to cause major illness and even death in pets.

“There definitely is a risk for cats licking transdermal creams that are now increasingly commonplace in human medicine,” says Michele Gaspar, DVM, DABVP, MA, feline internal medicine specialist and consultant for the Veterinary Information Network (VIN). It’s important to understand that cats differ from dogs in their responses to hormonal transdermals. This article from the VIN News Service explains more. 

Cats also lick as a form of bonding. Mother cats begin bathing their kittens as soon as they’re born, licking away the placenta, blood, and other fluids. They also use licking to help stimulate their babies to urinate and defecate on their own. (Aren’t you feeling lucky to be a human and not a mother cat right about now?) Kittens learn to groom themselves by watching mama kitty and often practice grooming each other, so it’s not surprising that cats would try to bond with their humans in the same way. One of my son’s cats (I passed the crazy cat person gene on to him) rarely passes up an opportunity to lick his hair and scalp. A co-worker of mine says her cat loves to lick her fingers and the top of her foot.

“I believe that when cats ‘groom’ their humans, it's a type of bonding and probably means that the kitty considers us very special,” says Gaspar. “So, when my Emmy ‘grooms’ me (usually at 2 a.m.), there's a part of me that thinks she might consider me a ‘hot mess’ and another part of me that is happy that she thinks of me as her BFF!”

As any cat owner knows, cat tongues are covered with tiny barbs, called papillae, that help them comb dirt and debris from their fur when grooming and also help them to strip the flesh from the bones of their prey. Since they lack thumbs and therefore can’t hold a hairbrush, this is a convenient feature from your cat’s point of view, but, if your kitty likes to spend lots of quality time ‘bonding’ with you, it may start to feel like it’s your flesh that’s being stripped. If you prefer to keep all your flesh on your bones, you can learn the signs that your cat is about to start slowly devouring you like a lollipop and redirect her attention with a toy.

If your cat isn’t much of a licker and suddenly develops an affinity for the taste of your skin or hair, or begins licking and grooming herself excessively, it’s a good idea to get her checked out by your veterinarian; there are some disorders that could be to blame for the change in behavior.

With all that I now know about why cats like to lick humans, I guess it's equally possible that Spider was motivated by what, to him, were yummy flavors on our skin, or that he could have been seeking the same comfortable, secure feeling that he remembered from nursing on his mother, all the while letting us know he felt like part of our family and that he trusted us.

Or, maybe a little bit of both.

Or, maybe he was just weird.


 
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