Is my cat kissing me or grooming me? And is it safe?

Dear Siouxsie, Thomas and Dahlia:
Hello! I read one of your columns on why cats lick their people and found it quite helpful. I was wondering if you could answer something on that topic a little more specific. My cat loves to lick my face and my lips, especially when I am waking up in the morning. Does it have to do with my yucky morning breath? Sometimes I get this little rash on my face and I can't tell if its from my cat licking me or if its a hormonal rash. I got it after he licked me but I was also pregnant at the time. It still happens from time to time, so I try not to let him kiss me, but a lot of the time I am asleep and sometimes it's too cute to stop him! I can tell it is affectionate, but is he kissing or grooming me? Is it safe to let him lick my lips? He is an indoor only cat. Thanks.
~ Heather

Siouxsie: Well, Heather, we suspect that this licking behavior is probably related to grooming. Cats that are friends often groom one another, especially in places that are hard to reach.

Thomas: That's right. There's nothing quite as wonderful as having a cat friend help us clean that little place just at the back of our heads where our tongues and paws just can't quite reach.

Dahlia: Mama cats clean their kittens from front to back. They start at the head and clean around the nose and lips, and then work their way to the shoulders, tummy, paws and finally our little bottoms. When we're really small, that bottom licking helps stimulate our bowels and bladder so we pee and poo.

Siouxsie: Grooming is behavior of affection. It gives us a warm, happy feeling in our tummies that makes us purr. When you stroke and pet your cat friend, it reminds him of being groomed, and that's why it makes him feel so good.

Thomas: So, Heather, we suspect your cat is grooming you, and that he's doing it as a gesture of love. He wants to return the favor for all the love you've given him.

Dahlia: We think your rash may be due to irritation from having your skin licked over and over again by your cat's sandpapery tongue.

Siouxsie: Cats' tongues have very long papillae (bumps) that work like combs do for you humans. When we groom ourselves or other cats, we get rid of dead hair, which helps our skin stay healthy. Because our tongues were designed for combing our fur, humans generally find our grooming rather painful, especially on sensitive skin areas like the face and lips.

Thomas: Lots of cats like to lick their humans' faces, so your cat is not strange. As to whether or not this behavior is safe ... well, it really depends.

Dahlia: There are very few diseases that can pass from cats to humans or vice versa. And of those that can, we're not aware of any that are transmitted via saliva.

Siouxsie: There are, however, parasites that can find homes inside human bodies as well as cat bodies. We believe the risk of parasite transmission by licking is pretty low -- most internal parasites come out the other end of the cat, after all -- but we think it's better to avoid letting your cat lick your lips.

Thomas: You've mentioned that your boy is an indoor-only cat, so the chances that he'd be infected with parasites is quite slim. But still, we say "better safe than sorry."

Dahlia: We'd recommend that you gently dissuade your kitty from licking your lips and face. Mama doesn't seem to mind if we lick her hands and fingers, but if we start licking her face she says it hurts and asks us to stop.

Siouxsie: The best way to make a cat stop doing something you don't want him to do is to distract him when he begins the behavior. In your case, this would be a matter of gently moving your cat away from your face when he begins licking you, saying something like "no face-licking," and petting him or playing with him.

Thomas: Of course, he probably will continue to lick your face occasionally, but we think you'll be happier -- and much more rash-free -- if you make an effort to gently break him of the habit.

Dahlia: We hope this helps, Heather. Please let us know how things turn out.

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