Chances are, at least once in your life, you’ve found yourself asking, “Why does my cat lick himself when I pet him?”

Hopefully, it will reassure you to know you’re not alone; others have felt the rejection of a cat, seemingly trying to wash the experience away.

Is it just one of those funny cat habits, or is he trying to tell you something (like, “Eww, you have human cooties!)?

Read on to understand what’s actually going on when your cat licks himself while you pet him (it may not be as bad as you think)!

Related: Why Does My Cat Lick My Hair?

Why Does My Cat Lick Himself When I Pet Him?

As I alluded to in the introduction, your cat grooming himself after or while you touch him may not be the insult you first thought.

There are a few reasons, all of which are pretty obvious once you read them. Let’s dive right in.

1. You’re Hitting a Spot Your Cat Can’t Reach

cat lover couple holding cat in hands and embracing

Cats are amazingly flexible creatures. I’ll often turn around to find one of my cats in a position that resembles something out of The Exorcist.

Even so, your cat can’t reach every inch of his body when grooming. This is why we apply spot-on flea treatments to the back of the neck.

If your cat suffers an injury or gains too much weight, then he will be even more restricted in his flexibility, limiting the areas of his body he can reach.

When you touch, pet or scratch one of those inaccessible areas, you can trigger his grooming instincts.

Unable to reach the area he wants to clean, he may lick at the air or another part of his body instead to satisfy the desire.

2. Your Cat Isn’t Enjoying the Petting Experience

Russian blue cat with blue russian cat name closing his eyes while being petted by a hand

As much as it pains us, cat lovers, to accept, sometimes our cats just aren’t that into us.

Or, more specifically, they don’t want to be petted. It might only be certain parts of their body, or it could be that they’re not in the mood period.

Displacement grooming is one of the ways your cat comforts himself. If your petting efforts left him feeling uncomfortable, licking could be a way to get over it.

3. Your Cat May Have a Skin Condition

cat eating off dirty ground

Even worse than the idea of your cat not being in the mood for petting, they may be suffering from a skin condition.

Skin problems can range from itchy and annoying to downright painful to be touched.

One of the more problematic examples of this is feline hyperesthesia syndrome.

It’s the opposite of anesthesia, so instead of reduced sensation, your cat’s skin and muscles are extra sensitive.

Excessive grooming can be a symptom of hyperesthesia, especially in response to petting. Attacking his own tail is another symptom to look out for.

4. You May Have Triggered Your Cat’s Mutual Grooming Instincts

cat licking himself after petted

Grooming isn’t just a matter of hygiene for your cat. It is also very much a social behavior for him.

Social grooming, or “allogrooming”, is a bonding behavior your cat uses to build relationships with other cats.

It builds bonds and helps create a group scent, a mixture of all the cats’ scents in his group.

So when you pet your cat, he may interpret that as you grooming him. His instincts will kick in, and he’ll try to groom you in return.

This behavior can appear as your cat licking at the air or turning to lick themselves if they can’t reach you.

He doesn’t want to get rid of your smell; in fact, he wants to mix it with his own!

What to Do if Your Cat Licks Himself When You Pet Him

cat licking himself while his eyes are closed

Before you can figure out what to do about it, you need to answer the following. Why does your cat lick himself when you pet him?

Let’s take each of the reasons in the list above and look at an appropriate response.

1. Places Your Cat Can’t Reach

You’ll know your cat licks for this reason if he shows signs of enjoyment. He’ll appear happy, calm and may try to encourage you to keep petting him if you stop.

Try to remember the body areas you touched that triggered the licking behavior.

If your cat can’t reach those areas to groom, he will appreciate you brushing it to help him stay clean.

2. He’s Not Enjoying It

You’ll know your cat isn’t enjoying petting through his body language. He’ll appear tense and may try to pull away from you as you touch him.

If it’s only certain areas of his body, pay attention to where specifically and avoid handling him in those spots.

If your cat just doesn’t want you to pet him at all, respect how he feels and give him some space. He’ll come around.

If you try to push the matter, he could try other ways to show his discomfort. Think biting and scratching.

3. Skin Conditions

If you believe your cat has any other symptoms of common cat skin conditions, the best course of action is to consult a vet.

They will be able to give an accurate diagnosis and recommend a suitable treatment plan.

4. Mutual Grooming

Be honored that your cat is thinking about returning the favor and grooming you. It means you’ve formed a strong bond.

Just remember, he enjoys you petting him. Licking is not required; you don’t want hairballs!

And if your cat decides to lick you, try not to wince at how rough his tongue feels. He might take offense.

In Summary

So, it turns out that your cat licking himself when you pet him isn’t the insult you thought it might be.

It could be a sign you’ve found the perfect spot or even a signal that he feels really close to you.

It could also mean that he’s not enjoying or feels uncomfortable with the attention, but that’s not because he doesn’t like you.

Worst case, licking could signify that your petting is irritating a skin condition. Your cat will love you forever if you take him to the vet to get that addressed.

Grey cat licking his paw with text that reads "Why does my cat lick himself when I pet him?"

Does your cat lick himself when you pet him? Share your experience below!

Barry Stingmore
Barry Stingmore

Barry Stingmore is a British content creator living in Fuerteventura, Spain. An animal lover at heart, he shares his home with a dog and four rescue cats.

Barry works with the island’s animal charities to help manage and care for feral and abandoned animals. Alongside fieldwork, he works to support the charities with fundraising and raising awareness.