|Many mornings, I wake up to my cat Dolly bathing my hair or face. She is never shy about pawing at my hair when she wants to lick it too and will even do it from the top of my upright piano while I’m playing. What is this behavior all about?
There could actually be numerous reasons why Dolly’s licking me and your cat’s licking you. Here are the most likely explanations.
Reason 1: Grooming
One of my favorite things about cats is that they groom themselves. It’s remarkable how well maintained they keep their coats, and it’s all based in the physiology of their tongues and instinct.
Most would describe a cat’s tongue as feeling like sandpaper because it’s covered with rear-facing curved and hollow spines called papillae, which are made of keratin, the same thing as our nails.
The papillae transfer saliva to their fur, where it performs two tasks: cleans fur and controls body temperature. Since papillae are also flexible, their rotation helps loosen any knots or dislodge pieces of dirt.
Kittens learn how to groom from their mother, who takes on the responsibility of cleaning her entire litter until they learn how to do it on their own. You’ll find littermates eventually bathing each other and even their mother.
As cats grow older, they will groom other cats and people they like, just as their mother taught them. A cat will not groom a cat (or a person) it doesn’t like.
Since cats view us as equals, your cat may groom you because they like you or they want to teach you how to groom yourself, both lessons they learned from their mother.
Reason 2: Affection
When a mother grooms her kittens, it isn’t just to clean them—it’s also a sign of affection. Licking is a way to build a social bond between cats.
How can you tell if your cat’s grooming you or showing affection?
It’s really impossible to know 100%, but I’m inclined to think just a few licks is affection, whereas a longer bath is grooming.
One cat may just lick another cat on the head once or twice and then do something else, and I believe this is a display of affection over grooming since we all know grooming takes a little more effort and time.