When cats lick: what does it mean?

Images portraying dogs licking their owners and fellow animals illustrate a classic example of life living with dogs. But what does it mean when cats lick? The joyful and often excitable slobbers of dogs are very different from the discrete gestures of the feline, arousing our curiosity as to the meaning. Dr Maria Grazia Calore, veterinary surgeon and expert in pet behaviour, reveals some interesting facts about the matter.

Licking itself: grooming or stress?

feline’s method of washing using its tongue is known as grooming. A cat licking itself several times over the course of the day to maintain a clean and shiny coat and help prevent knots is perfectly normal but its important to pay attention to the frequency of this gesture. If our cat licks itself constantly, it could have an underlying physical issue or be suffering from anxiety. In fact, just as people bite their nails or play with their hair, cats that over groom may be trying to compensate for feeling bad by repeating this reassuring gesture.

The surface of the cat’s tongue is rough like a small tooth comb: so not only it can pull out fur, it can also cause wounds to the skin. So if you spot signs of over grooming, it’s advisable to identify and then remove any factors that may be provoking anxiety (for example, an environment not stimulating enough, an unhappy coexistence with another person or pet or changes in its normal routine) before the cat over grooms to the point that it loses a lot of fur.

Licking others: friendship and more

Not only does a cat groom itself it may also groom other cats, this is known as ‘allogrooming’. This behaviour starts from the first days of life: a mother cat cleans her kittens’ genital areas to provoke a natural reflex to urinate and defecate.

Mutual licking between cats is a signal of strong friendship usually associated with relaxed postures and purrs and can also serve as a peace offering after a small quarrel.

But, what does a cat want to tell us when it licks us? The act of licking our hair or areas around our mouth is a social behaviour: the cat is taking care of us, it considers us its friend.

Licks near the armpits, soles of feet or palms of hands have a different meaning however: the cat is ‘feeling’ our pheromone messages. In these moments, it’s not unusual for the feline to display a particular behaviour called flehmen: this is where the cat appears to stare with its mouth open and lips curled. In actual fact, the feline is inhaling a smell and with small movements of the tongue, pushes the air filled with chemical messages across the vomeronasal organ that decodes these messages, helping our friend to understand our state of mind.

This ability to ‘read’ pheromone signals in nature is not uncommon.