Why Does My Cat Lick My Hand?

If you have a cat, you have probably experienced this behavior, and are left wondering, why does my cat lick my hand?

Like many cat parents, this is probably what happened.

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

Let’s find out why are they doing it?

5 Reasons Why Do Cats Lick Your Hands

  1. Sign of Affection
  2. Claiming their territory/space
  3. Their grooming instinct has kicked in
  4. Stress
  5. Possible Health Issues

What Does it Mean When a Cat Licks Your Hand? Let’s take a closer look.

Reason 1: Affection

You may be asking yourself, why does my cat lick my hand when I pet her? What reason does she have for doing it?

white cat licking the woman's hand

The most charming, and one 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 redeem the rewards of bonding. (1) 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.

Watch the video below to also learn why a cat licks himself when you pet him.

Reason 2: Claiming their territory/space

cat licking the hand of her owner

When you find yourself asking, ‘Why is my cat licking my hand? What does it mean?’ it could also 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 a part of their territory. (2) 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 does this, I explained the importance to cats of claiming things in their space.

His response, “Well, what does it mean then when my cat licks my nose?” I told him that it was probably because the cat decided his nose now belonged to her. He left the room confused, and I still cannot stop laughing.

Reason 3: Their Grooming Instinct has Kicked In

When a cat licks your hand it may also simply mean that their grooming instinct has kicked in. (4)

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

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 that 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 or owner.

Sometimes you might feel a little nip in there, and find yourself asking yourself why does my cat lick me then bite me ?

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.

Grooming is one thing, but another question you might find yourself asking is, why does my cat clean herself after I pet her? No, they are not trying to ‘wash your scent off.’ It is actually quite the opposite.

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 pet 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.   

Reason 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 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 she will be back to feeling nonplussed in no time at all. 

Reason 5: Compromised Health

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.

FAQs

SHOULD I LET MY CAT LICK MY HAND?

a tiger kitten licking his lips after licking the floor

Yes, you should let your cat lick your hand if it doesn’t bother you. It probably won’t do you any harm. My son lets our cat lick his hand all of the time. In their case, we are certain that it is just a sign of affection.
They are two peas in a pod who can be found together almost every waking moment we are home (and usually the sleeping ones too). Our cat shows the boy he loves her by licking her hand.

WHY DOES IT HURT WHEN MY CAT LICKS MY HAND?

You might feel it hurt when your cat licks your hand because they are born with a rough tongue to help them catch and hold prey in the wild. It won’t hurt you and in their domestic bliss you call home, they are not likely to need it.
But if they were to venture outside, it would come in handy for hunting. I’d like to think our cat is not a hunter at heart (I’m soft that way) but her swift inclination to dart towards any bird that comes anywhere near our front window proves otherwise.

WHY DOES MY CAT LICK MY HAND?

Your cat licks your hand for several reasons. To show love, mark what is theirs, stress or worry, health issues, and grooming.

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 though, and they have not been prone to hand licking before, taking 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.

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

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, Why does my cat lick my hand question is just that she loves us. We love her too.

cat gnawing on the lady's fingers

Why does your cat lick your hand? Let us know your opinion below!

References

  1. Ines, Mauro, Claire Ricci-Bonot, and Daniel S. Mills. “My cat and me—A study of cat owner perceptions of their bond and relationship.” Animals6 (2021): 1601.
  2. Rochlitz, Irene. “Basic requirements for good behavioural health and welfare in cats.” BSAVA Manual of canine and feline behavioural medicine. BSAVA Library, 2009. 35-48.
  3. Cooper, Paulette, and Paul Noble. 277 Secrets Your Cat Wants You to Know. Random House Digital, Inc., 1997.
Rosey A
Rosey A

Rosey A. is a teacher by day, a freelancer by night. She enjoys family, friends, travel, and writing.
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