Why Does My Cat Lick Me? And What’s With the Sandpaper Tongue?

Have you thought about how much time your cat spends self-grooming? Many cat lovers and pet parents are surprised to discover their furry feline spends 30-50% of their waking hours licking themselves.

Apparently, those sandpaper-like tongues have a lot of work to do. It turns out their rough tongues are covered in tiny spikes called papillae and their purpose is to help detangle kitty fur and redistribute oils. 

As a cat lover, that makes sense for the felines, but not so much for your cat licking you. After all, they’re not trying to detangle your arm hair with their rough tongues when they lick your hand or elbow. So what is the purpose? 

Why Do Cats Lick You? 

what does it mean when a cat licks you

Since your feline friend spends a huge portion of their waking hours grooming, it makes sense they take that natural cat behavior to you, their “person.” 

Janet Cutler, Ph.D., a Certified Cat Behaviorist at Cat World, says, “Cats can lick for many different reasons, and scientists have begun to research interactions between people and cats; however, we still don’t have many answers.” 

However, scientists have a few possible reasons why your cat licks you.

It’s a sign of affection

woman with cat. are cats colorblind

Your cat cares. If you watch mother cats with their kittens, the cat moms spend a lot of time grooming their offspring with their tongues.

You’ll see regular cat grooms with adult cats who’ve bonded. This licking behavior, called allogrooming, is where cat grooms strengthen the social bond when a group of cats live together and one kitty tends to be the primary groomer for the others. Watch your crew and see if your “top cat” usually grooms the others.  

Under this theory, it means that licking you is a way for your kitty to show affection.

They’re Claiming You

why do cats lay on your chest

Pheromones are scent glands in your kitty’s face and they operate as a language all their own in the cat world. They establish territorial boundaries and help a cat feel safe and secure.

You’ve watched your kitty purr and rub his face against a chair leg, that’s how your kitty “claims” that chair and the surrounding area. Your cat might groom a favorite cat toy too.

Likewise, licking you leaves pheromones that let other cats know you’re taken. 


why do cats make biscuits

Why is my cat licking me? Well, that cat food can isn’t going to open itself.

If it’s dinner-time and you’re still glued to the computer, your cat will demand your attention. It’s common to have your cat licking you, head butting, kneading, and doing what it takes to get you to pay attention. Or, maybe it’s playtime and they want you to wriggle a cat toy around for them. Cats need playtime too. 

You Taste Good

Salt, food, and your skin itself might taste good to your kitty. Imagine pouring a little tuna juice on your finger from a can of tuna. Your cat will definitely enjoy licking your tuna finger.

Illness or Sign of Stress

can cats get depressed

Sometimes cats lick more when they’re anxious or stressed. Licking is a form of self-soothing and if you have a new pet they may lick more as they’re adjusting to their new home.

Or they could have a medical condition. Cats have been known to lick the fur from certain parts of their body in extreme cases. If your furry friend suddenly starts excessive licking, talk with your veterinarian. You want to make sure there’s not a medical issue.

What Does It Mean When a Cat Licks You and Then Bites You?

cat with puzzle toy

Every cat parent’s lived the experience of having a purring cuddling feline lick you and then whip around and bite you. It feels like a transgression. Like somehow, your kitty broke the rules of cuddling.

One does not then bite the hand that feeds it. Except, cats do. Often. And we put up with it. 

Janet Cutler, Ph.D, says, “There are generally two types of cats that do this: cats that want to be near a person but don’t actually want to be pet and will bite; or cats that do want to be pet but the interaction lasts longer than they would like, so they bite.” 

You’re probably nodding your head in recognition. If you watch your cat’s body language, they’ll usually tell you when then they’re done with the petting. A twitching tail, ears pressed to the head, tense body, and fidgeting are signs your furry friend’s had enough. If you don’t move away, you risk more aggressive action. 

Should I Let My Cat Lick Me?

If you look at having your furry friend lick you as a form of endearment, why not? If your cat wants to lick you to show you’re part of the family, that seems sweet.

However, you do want to be aware if you have any open wounds, you don’t want your kitty licking them. Cats do carry bacteria in their mouths. 

Why Are Cats Tongues So Rough? 

why does my cat lick me

Earlier I mentioned the papillae which is the name for the tiny concave spines you feel. They’re hollow like a spoon and shaped backward designed to separate the fur. Once separated, cat saliva can reach the skin, and with the combination of moisture and pressure, your cat’s tongue can release dirt and detangle fur.

Interestingly, all cat breeds from the lion to the smallest house cat have papillae of the same shape and size. They’re made of keratin, the same as fingernails. 

How to Stop Your Kitty from Licking You 

cat with puzzle

Now that you have a little more insight into the mysteries of cat licking, you might look at your kitty’s tongue in a new light. Maybe you don’t want them licking you. Some people have sensitive skin and find it painful or irritating. 

If you’d like to curtail their licking, you can offer a cat toy, catnip, or enrichment puzzle when they start licking you. You can also wear perfume or a lotion your kitty doesn’t like the smell of or refuse to pay attention to your kitty when they lick you. Stand up and walk away and maybe toss a kitty toy, your furry friend deserves some fun. 

As you can see, cats lick cat owners for many reasons. However, if you suspect your kitty’s behavior has changed, it’s worth consulting with your DVM. 

Don’t Want Sandpaper Tongue on Your Skin? Distract Them With a Cat Puzzle.