What does it mean when a cat licks me?

Dear Sinéad and Siouxsie:
I work as a kennel assistant at a local animal hospital. The best part of my job is having time to play with all the dogs and kitties that come in, but I've always been unsure about one thing. I know when a dog licks you, humans say they are "giving you kisses," but what is it when a cat licks you? Cats don't do it near as much as dogs. Is it the same idea, though? I've been told that they're "giving you a bath" or they are "feeling motherly." I've always been confused on this topic.

Yours Truly,
Mandy in Missouri

Sinéad: For cats, licking has many different meanings. As you know, we cats lick ourselves in order to clean ourselves, so first and foremost, licking is grooming behavior.

Siouxsie: And there are times when we lick our humans to clean them up. Usually when they've got something tasty on their skin like butter or fish or meat juice. Mmmm!

Sinéad: Mother cats lick their newborn kittens vigorously, not only to clean their fur but to stimulate their breathing and digestion.

Siouxsie: And until kittens are old enough to move around and learn about the litterbox, mama cats will lick their tummies and bottoms to get them to pee and poo, and then she'll clean up after them.

Sinéad: But grooming also has a social value. We cats engage in mutual grooming--one cat grooming another--with our best kitty friends. It's a way of sharing our scent around and showing affection.

Siouxsie: And sometimes I groom Sinéad just enough to get her all relaxed and then I bap her on the head and chase her around the room! Hee hee hee!

Sinéad: As you see, sometimes grooming does serve as instigation for play. But generally speaking, when we lick our humans, it's a gesture of affection. It's not a kiss, like a big yucky slobbery dog lick, but it's a way we show our appreciation to you for stroking and brushing us and making us feel good. In a sense, it's like interspecies mutual grooming.

Siouxsie: We cats "kiss" with our eyes. If you see a cat slowly closing and opening his eyes toward you, he's giving you a kiss. And we love it when humans give us cat-kisses like that, too. It's a great way to calm down a tense cat. Just close and open your eyes very slowly and broadcast feelings of love, kindness and safety, and watch how a cat responds to your gesture!

Sinéad: The cat kiss is the opposite of staring. Staring is very rude in cat society, and it usually means you're challenging a cat for territory or food. So it's very important not to stare at a cat...unless you're trying to assert dominance. If so, a stare-down is a good and nonviolent way to assert that you're the "top cat" in your clan. But be warned--cats are much better starers than humans, and if you blink even slightly during a stare-down, you've lost the challenge.

Siouxsie: Another feline gestures of affection is head-bonking (known to animal behaviorists as "bunting"), in which a cat stands up on her hind legs and bumps a part of your body, usually your hand, with her head.

Sinéad: The head-bonk involves territorial marking, too, since we have a lot of scent glands on our foreheads (particularly that part of our head in front of our ears where the fur is thin) and near our lips, and we're rubbing our scent onto you. This form of marking is affectionate, because we're welcoming you as part of our clan.

Siouxsie: When we rub material objects with our heads, we're indicating possession. Rubbing the chair or the bed or the cat tree with our heads is our way of saying "this is mine."

Sinéad: Cats don't actually hug, in the true sense of the word. Sometimes I wrap my tail around Mama's wrist when I sit on her shoulder, and she calls that a "tail hug" because she knows I'm doing it on purpose to show her how much I love her.

Siouxsie: Some cats actually will put their front paws on either side of their human's neck in a gesture very much like a human hug, but we prefer to express physical closeness by curling up on your lap or next to you in bed or on the couch.

Sinéad: Dogs hug by leaning against you. This is quite an experience, especially with big dogs; they sometimes lean so hard their humans almost fall over. So if your dog is leaning on you, don't say "no!" and make him scared; he's just showing you he loves you. Wolves and other canids express affection toward one another this way, too.

Siouxsie: Well, Mandy, we hope we've helped you understand more about what licking and other affectionate gestures mean to cats.

Sinéad: Go forth and shower the kitties and dogs at your animal hospital with kisses and loving. Your job is vital in helping sick animals get better; the comfort and affection you give speeds their recovery and makes their stay at the vet much less distressing. Purrs to you and all the other kennel assistants, vet techs and animal carers out there.

Got a question? Need some advice? E-mail Sinéad and Siouxsie at advice@paws-and-effect.com. None of the advice in this column is meant to be a substitute for regular veterinary care.