Last Updated: 7 months ago

If you have a cat, you have probably experienced this behavior and are left wondering, What’s the reason behind this behavior?

Like many cat parents, this is probably what happened.

You’re sitting in your chair, minding your own business, when all of a sudden you feel the sandpaper grit of your cat’s tongue furiously, or carefully, licking your hand.

Let’s find out why they’re doing it.

Why Does My Cat Lick My Hand?

Ever experienced the gentle, raspy caress of your cat’s tongue as it affectionately licks your hand?

In the feline world, this behavior holds more significance than a mere grooming gesture.

Let’s try to understand the nuanced language of feline lickings and decipher the unique ways in which cats connect with their human companions through this intimate act.

1. Affection

white cat licking the woman's hand

The most charming and definite possibility is that she is doing it to show you affection. This is especially true if you spend quality time with your cat and have created a bond with her.

Studies have shown that owners who have a high emotional investment in their cats often reap the rewards of bonding. One form of this in our house is that my cat licks my hand.

Admittedly, it used to make me jump and wonder if it was strange behavior. I also wasn’t used to the grit of her tongue, which feels strange.

These days, I’m much more comfortable with this. I know it is her normal behavior, so I just give her a little pat on the head, and she curls up beside me to go to sleep. Sometimes I could even swear she goes to sleep smiling.

2. Claiming their territory Or space

cat licking the hand of her owner

It could be that they are claiming their territory or space with their licking habit.

It is common behavior for a cat to excessively lick something when they are trying to mark it as being part of their territory.

Our cat gives a tongue bath to plastic bags from the grocery store, tote bags from the mall, and even papers I bring home from my job.

It doesn’t matter how small or big something is; if it’s new, she seems to find a way to single it out and give it a few head rubs or licks.

When my child asked me why she did this, I explained the importance of cats claiming things in their space.

3. Their Grooming Instinct has Kicked In

cat licking another cat on the face but why do cats groom each other?

When a cat licks your hand, it may also simply mean that their grooming instinct has kicked in.

Most cats groom themselves, and many groom one another, so it isn’t all that unusual that when they live with you day in and day out, they have a natural proclivity to groom you too.

Grooming you shows that they both trust you and want to show you affection. These things can be seen as signs of social bonding between a cat and its owner.

That, too, is a natural part of the grooming process and should probably not be viewed as aggressive behavior or anything out of the ordinary. Cat behavior has always included grooming.

Cats find comfort in our scent, and while we may not be able to smell our hands at all, cats recognize our distinct scent.

Grooming themselves after we have petted them is a way of rubbing our scent on them, ‘or tasting it’ which can help make them feel secure and content in our homes.

Call it social grooming vs. traditional cat grooming, if you will.   

4. Stress

cat licking the finger of a woman

Sometimes stress can lead your cat to do things she may not have done before. One of those things is licking your hand.

If it is not something she usually does or has not done before, look into the changes around her and see if anything is making her feel stressed out.

Have you changed her bed?

Is her cat tower in a new place? One way to determine if they are stressed out is to simply pay attention to their body language.

If excessive cat licking, meowing, or hiding are things your cat is doing, they may be feeling out of sorts.

In our house, it’s moving furniture that leads to behavioral issues (our cat gets so stressed out when I rearrange the living room or move things to mop).

Identify what could be leading to the detour from your cat’s normal behavior. Take measures to give her extra attention and make her feel safe and secure.

Chances are high that she will be back to feeling nonplussed in no time at all.

5. Compromised Health

cat with health issues

If your cat has never licked your hand before, as with anything that is new behavior, you might want to take a look at their overall health.

Is there anything lacking in their diet? Are they showing signs of duress or not feeling well?

Proactive veterinarian check-ups can help avoid health surprises, but anytime you suspect something is ‘off’, please do not hesitate to call your cat’s veterinarian.

And, if necessary, book an appointment with them as soon as possible.

Take a look at this cat expert explaining why cats will lick you. I found it really helpful.

Conclusion

There are many reasons a cat may lick your hand. Affection, claiming their territory, and grooming are the best cases and very likely scenarios.

If a cat feels stressed and has not been prone to hand licking before, take time to evaluate your surroundings and figure out what is new or different.

This can be an easy way to understand the change and reassure your feline friend that all is well.

The worst-case scenario, and probably the least likely, is a health change. No one knows your cat better than you do.

If you ever feel like something is wrong with your cat or her health, be sure to contact a professional to evaluate the situation at once. 

We are very fortunate in our home that the answer to our question, “Why does my cat lick my hand?”, is just that she loves us. We love her too.

Resources:

cat gnawing on the lady's fingers
Linda
Linda

Dr. Linda Simon MVB MRCVS is a locum veterinary surgeon who has worked in London for the past 8 years. She graduated top of her class in small animal medicine from UCD, Dublin. She is currently a member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. Linda is the resident vet for Woman magazine and a frequent contributor to People’s Friend Magazine, the Dogzone website, Vet Help Direct and Wag! Linda also writes content for the CVS veterinary group, Vetwriter and a number of other establishments.