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8 Reasons Cats Lick Themselves When Petted: Here’s All You Need to Know

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If you are a cat owner and love pets, chances are that you chose a cat over a dog, it’s because you might be one of those people who think “kitties are cleaner than dogs.” And it is indeed true, on average, a normal cat spends about 50% of its waking time grooming herself (or another cat).[1]

However, a cat licking herself while being groomed by her owner is a different thing. And this is one of the behaviors that leave some cat owners scratching their heads and wondering what’s going on.

Let’s explore this behavior!

Here are eight reasons cats lick themselves when petted.

reasons cats lick themselves when petted

1. She Is Just Grooming Herself

Being well-groomed isn’t just for us people, cats are also a big fan of keeping clean and looking good. However, for cats, it’s not just about looking good.

They groom themselves since it is an innate behavior that they perform to keep them looking tidy but also keeps them calm and cool, free from parasites, and even as a bonding behavior.

If you notice your cat licking herself while you’re petting her, one of the most satisfying possibilities is that she is just grooming herself. Maybe it’s a hot day, and your cat wants to cool down. But cats can’t sweat to cool themselves like us humans, however, on the other hand, dogs pant to cool off. What this means is that cats do not have sweat glands, so their saliva somewhat helps them cool down on hot days.[2]

cat is grooming herself when petted

Likewise, cats groom themselves daily, and this self-cat-grooming also helps in getting rid of dirt and parasites such as fleas from their coat. Their barb-like tongues stimulate the sebaceous glands at the bottom of their hair and spread out the resultant sebum throughout the hairs.

2. Your Cat Doesn’t Like to Be Petted

Although it is difficult to understand exactly what a cat is thinking and feeling as she licks herself when you are petting her, it is significant to understand that not all cats experience the same feeling when they receive pets and scratching.

While some people may enjoy the attention and the petting, others might feel uncomfortable for any reason. Though this is not something you want to hear, it is a possibility that your cat might be licking herself.

Moreover, if your cat does this, then you might have a finicky cat at your hand who does not like to be touched anywhere, or there may be certain parts of her body where she’d rather not receive any petting.

cat does not like to be petted

Apart from that, other cats have a condition known as feline hyperesthesia syndrome, which makes their skin highly sensitive, so a small pet or scratch from you might be painful or extremely uncomfortable to them.[3]

3. She Might Have an Itch That You Can’t Scratch

Another common reason is that you are scratching/petting your cat in an area where she can’t reach herself. It is likely that that specific area on the cat’s body is dirty or itchy because the cat couldn’t reach it, or it might have escaped her careful grooming efforts.

cat has an itch

For instance, if you scratch a dog behind his ear, chances are that he may often respond to the pleasurable feeling by shaking one of his legs as a self-scratching gesture. It is almost as if you are scratching a place that he had forgotten to scratch or couldn’t reach.

In a similar way, cat self-licking or air-licking seems to show the same kind of reaction, especially among cats who suffer from skin-related allergies, external parasite infestations, or other itchy conditions.

So, when you pet/scratch your cat in such areas, it triggers an automatic desire for your cat to groom that area. But since the cat can’t reach it, she licks at the air or an area on her body that she can reach instead.

4. She Might Be Licking Her Injury

If your cat has an injury or has recently gone through surgery, chances are that she will try to lick it often. Not only is this common in cats, but also in dogs, rodents, horses, and primates; they all lick their wounds. This is called wound-licking.

However, your cat might lick her wound regardless of you petting her. The cat’s saliva contains a tissue factor that is known to promote the blood clotting mechanism. The enzyme lysozyme is seen in various tissues and is known to break the cell walls of many gram-positive bacteria, which in return acts as a defense against the possible infection.

cat licking her injury

So, if you pet your cat, it might remind her of the injury or the surgery area, and start licking in order to prevent any infection. Moreover, a cat licking with a rough tongue can also remove her dead skin cells.

5. It Could Be Mutual Grooming

Cats love to groom. In fact, cats even lick other cats for many reasons. It could be for strengthening their ties within the same family. Likewise, cats that are friends often groom each other at the same time.

When you pet her, your cat licks herself at the same area — then it could be her way of performing mutual grooming, an act that occurs between close and loving cats, as I said before.

Just remember, your cat enjoys it when you pet her. Licking is not required; you don’t want hairballs, right?

mutual grooming cats

And in this scenario, you are the other cat that is grooming your cat. So, just be thankful you don’t have to use your tongue. However, if your cat tries to lick you, try not to wince at how rough the tongue might feel. She might take offense, and you don’t want that.

6. She Might Have a Skin Condition

If the above reasons don’t seem to be the cause of your cat licking herself when you pet her, chances are that your cat might be having a certain kind of skin condition.

For instance, your cat may have fleas, mites, or allergies which caused itchy skin in her, and therefore, your petting/scratching might be scratching an itch or she feeling uncomfortable.

And as I mentioned in the second reason above, the hyperesthesia syndrome can make a cat’s skin highly sensitive, and this can cause her to lick herself.

cat might have a skin condition

Moreover, your cat’s reaction of licking herself might be automatic, but there are some cats who might feel more uncomfortable, which can result in biting or scratching the person who is doing the petting.

7. She Is Hiding Her Scent (Or Yours?)

If you didn’t know, a cat’s sense of smell is almost about fourteen times more powerful than that of us humans. Likewise, most predators, including cats, track their prey by the way of tracking the scent.

This is especially seen in outdoor cats. For instance, a mother feline in the wild will try to hide her young kittens’ scent by getting rid of the evidence of their feeding. Moreover, she will lick herself and them thoroughly after she is done nursing.

cat licking to hide her scent

To protect themselves, cats in the wild will lick themselves to get rid of any odors that remain from killing their prey, so they do not become prey to any other animal. Similarly, cats may also want to take off other odors from their coat, such as human odors. Most cats will groom themselves right after you pet them to remove your scent and also their own scent.

So, if you have an outdoor cat, it is likely that this reason relates to why she licks herself when petted.

8. Just For Fun

Cats love grooming, not just to keep themselves clean, but grooming is also fun and pleasurable for them. All cats seem to enjoy the process of grooming. Moreover, cats will also groom one another, and also their owners, out of what surely appears to be a desire to share a pleasurable feeling.

cat licking just for fun

Petting/scratching your cat can make her happy, and she might start licking herself too. In fact, she might even lick you to express happiness and trust. Moreover, grooming is therapeutic for cats, they do this to self-soothe and to reduce anxiety.

So, if you find your cat licking herself when you pet her, there is nothing to worry about, she is just having fun.

Bottom Line

And there you have it, folks! These were the eight possible reasons cats lick themselves when petted. Did you finally figure out the reason behind why your cat might be licking herself when you pet her?

Something you should keep in mind — if you notice that your cat is constantly licking the same spot or if you see bald spots on your cat’s coat, know that it’s time to check in with your vet.

Likewise, make sure your cat hasn’t caught any fleas or has any allergies that are causing the discomfort. And if your cat doesn’t like being touched in certain spots, you should avoid petting those areas.


  1. Cats that lick too much — Cornell University
  2. Cat’s grooming habits — Hill’s Pet
  3. Everything you need to know about cat licking — Pet Place

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