Shiba Inu out for a walk licking its nose while on a leash, wearing a harness.

Why pets lick

Team Walmart Pets

June 8, 2021


min read

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, for most pet parents there’s no avoiding those slobbery dog kisses or sandpaper-like cat tongues. From dogs licking your face, to cats grooming your hair — licks are an essential part of being a pet parent. But have you ever wondered why dogs lick your face or why cats lick your hand? Is it a sign of love or something else? 

What does it mean when your dog or cat licks you?

The truth is, your pet may very well use their tongue to show affection — or to lick something tasty off of your skin. The language of licks can also say a whole lot more, whether the object of attention is themselves, other pets, other humans or other things. So if your pet’s licking behavior leaves you feeling loved, concerned or just plain confused, read on for the scoop on what your pet’s tongue is telling you.

Why cats can’t stop grooming

Did you know that cats spend roughly half their waking hours grooming? It’s easy to understand why once you know that their licking triggers the brain to release feel-good chemicals like serotonin and endorphins into their bloodstream. And it’s not just cats — both dogs can get hooked on the feeling, which causes dogs and cats to become obsessive lickers.

Why does my dog lick people?

When your cute canine gives you a big lick, is it pure puppy love — or are they saying you need a bath? Let’s try deciphering why dogs lick us, or more bizarrely, lick things like carpet or plastic.

They’re figuring out who you are

When your dog greets you with his tongue out, they may be checking your identity by sampling the taste of your skin. Like us, our pets have taste buds that can be seen on a biopsy of their tongues. When a dog licks you, they’re picking up a unique taste blend that helps them know who you are.

They’re showing affection

While a lick may not be the same as a kiss in doggy terms, it is still a sign of love and affection. Dogs groom one another as a sign of acceptance and companionship. A dog may lick her pet parent to acknowledge that they’re a member of their family, or to show instinctual maternal affection.

Why does my cat lick me?

Because they “own” you

As silly as it sounds, it’s often said that dogs have owners while cats have masters, and from your cat’s perspective, that’s exactly the case. In addition to rubbing their cheeks on you to mark you with their scent, cats also show “ownership” by licking. 

To show affection

Licking is a social cue for cats. Cats demonstrate affection by licking others, even if their scratchy tongue isn’t always the most comfortable way to do so. Though you’ll almost never see male cats lick other male cats, the same principle doesn’t apply to us humans. 

To groom you

If you’re like most people, you probably shower or bathe on a regular basis. Unfortunately your cat doesn’t know that, so cats will often try to groom and clean other members of their family (that’s you!) with their tongues. You’re welcome?

To deal with the Sunday scaries

When cats are stressed, they may lick things, or in this case people, as a way to cope. Licking releases feel-good chemicals such as serotonin and endorphins into the bloodstream which help reduce anxiety and lower stress hormones.

To get you to pay attention to them

Sometimes your cat just wants you to step away from the computer and pay attention to them. Cats licking, pawing, meowing or scratching someone often causes people to respond to them, and let’s face it, we could all probably use a break anyways. Just be sure you’re not reinforcing bad behavior by doing so. 

As explained above, there are lots of reasons why pets lick everything. But what if your pet is licking excessively in just one area? 

Where your pet licks — and for how long — can speak volumes about their health.

Why do dogs lick their paws?

A dog that excessively licks their paws and legs may have a skin irritation, particularly seasonal or food-related allergies.

Unfortunately, some dogs get so hooked on licking (their way of itching) that they damage the skin, creating a vicious cycle — the licking causes tingling, which draws attention back to the area, leading to further licking. This can cause a permanent open sore called a “lick granuloma,” which can be difficult to cure due to its recurring nature. If your dog is over-keen on cleaning their paws, talk to your vet about allergy testing or behavioral therapy to break this tricky licky cycle, both of which can be covered by a comprehensive pet insurance policy.  

Why does my dog lick their leg?

Your canine companion may pay special attention to a sore joint by licking it in an attempt to ease the discomfort. If your dog can’t seem to leave that one joint alone — especially if you spot him limping on that leg — have him checked by a vet. 

Why does my dog lick the carpet?

Some pets lick bizarre objects like carpets or furniture, which can become a nuisance. Actually, this odd behavior may be a sign your four-legged friend has a health issue or dietary deficiency. It is thought that dogs with Addison’s disease lick in search of salt, while those with digestive disturbances lick to replace vitamins. Indeed, liver disease does strange things to a dog’s appetite, which can lead him to lick to satisfy cravings. If your dog’s licking tastes have recently changed, get him to your vet. 

Why does my cat lick plastic bags?

A bizarre habit almost exclusive to cats is that of licking plastic bags. No one is certain why they do this, but one theory involves the ingredients of the plastic. Biodegradable carrier bags are often rendered with animal fats such as tallow, lanolin or gelatin, which makes them lick-tastic for cats. Just be sure that licking doesn’t turn to swallowing or choking: keep plastic bags stowed safely.

Why does my pet lick their groin?

If your pet suddenly starts obsessively licking their nether regions, this could be a warning sign of urinary problems, such as a bladder or urinary tract infection (UTI) that can’t be ignored. This is of special concern in male cats because they can develop urinary blockages, which require emergency treatment. (Other signs of this include repeated squatting and crying when trying to pass urine.) 

Why do pets lick each other?

In the subtle world of canine communication, a simple lick sends out a powerful message — a well-timed one can even stop the fur from flying. The placatory lick from one dog to another can signal acceptance of the top dog’s status and defuse a tense stand-off. So why do pets lick one another?

If a subordinate dog licks a dominant dog as a sign of acceptance, then the dominant dog may lick the subordinate —because he can! The difference is all in the body language as one dog approaches another: tail down could signal hostility or tension, while tail up signals friendship.

Other cat grooming habits

Lack of licking can tell pet parents something as well. Grooming is not just part of your pet’s personal hygiene — it makes furry friends feel good in more ways than one. In warm weather, licking helps pets stay cool thanks to the evaporation of saliva from their fur. If you notice your pet neglecting their grooming (especially in hard-to-reach places), watch to see if a tubby tummy might be getting in the way. Likewise, a pet suffering from arthritis may be less flexible. If your cat or dog is developing a dull, dusty or greasy coat, it’s time for a check-up with your vet. 

For cats in particular, licking is a common displacement activity. What better way of pretending it was their intention to fall off the sofa all along than to stop for a casual wash?

Why does my cat lick their stomach?

Cats who lick their bellies bald may be suffering from skin irritation caused by parasites or an allergy. However, it’s often a behavioral tic that your cat indulges in to relieve stress. Trying to find the cause of the stress is the first step: Have you been away from home, or has their routine changed recently? Pheromone therapy is one drug-free treatment that can calm her, but it’s also worth scheduling a vet visit to rule out any physical ailments.

Why doesn’t my male cat groom my other male cat?

When it comes to mutual licking, there is a gender gap. Behaviorists studying cats have shown that females will groom cats of both sexes, but in groups that are exclusively female, they refuse to groom one another — probably because the hierarchy gets too complicated! Male cats will never lick other males — it’s simply not done!

Why do mothers lick their offspring?

A mother dog or cat licks her puppy or kitten for several reasons. Not only does it help mother and baby bond, but she stimulates the newborn to breathe. Instinct also tells the mother to keep the nest clean, so she licks her offspring to encourage them to toilet — and if you’re not quick with clean-up, she will do the same to remove the evidence! 

Don’t let your pet lick this

A few things can cause serious health issues if your pet licks them, so keep these well away from feline and canine tongues:

Topical parasite preventives  

If ingested, the active ingredients in flea and tick preventives can lead to excessive drooling, head shaking or stomach upset in dogs. Always apply where the pet can‘t reach, such as the back of the neck, and don‘t allow pet pals to lick each other after application. (And never use dog-specific products on cats — they can be toxic to Fluffy!)

Tin cans

Finding an open can in the trash may seem like doggy heaven, but your pooch is likely to end up with a cut tongue. Always dispose of aluminum, glass and other sharp waste in a lidded bin out of paws’ reach

Surgical incisions

Yes, our pets’ saliva has some disinfectant properties, but the abrasive action of licking does more harm than good to sensitive scars. Your pet is far more likely to damage healing tissue than keep it clean, so the dreaded “cone of shame” may be needed to avoid post-operative licking.  

Ear drops

While mutual grooming may be nice, it’s a no-no if one pet is receiving medication via ear drops. The licking pal could wash away the medication before it can work, and ingest potentially harmful ingredients.

Who would have thought the language of licks could say so much without words? With one flick of the tongue, a pet can potentially defuse a fight, recognize his pet parents or comfort himself. He can also inadvertently reveal information about his health, from skin ailments to joint pain or internal issues —   so keep a close eye on where your pet puts his tongue.

Pet Health


Photo by Melody Less on Unsplash