Cats show their affection in different ways. A lingering body lean against your leg, a cuddle in your lap as you read the paper, a heart-warming cheek rub — these are all ways that our furry felines let us know we’ve got their stamp of approval. But what about licking? If you’ve been licked by a cat, you’ve probably been surprised by the rough texture of a cat’s tongue. It might be bubblegum pink and adorably tiny, but a feline’s tongue contains papillae, which feel like sandpaper and help cats properly groom themselves and effectively remove meat from bones. 

So why is your four-legged friend repeatedly licking you? For one, they lick to form and strengthen bonds. Allogrooming, a behavior in cats and other social animals, creates a familiar group scent, reinforces the relationship and social connection between members and (bonus!) keeps everyone in tip top shape. “I usually take my cats’ licking as a compliment,” states certified feline behavior consultant Marci Koski, who explains that a licking cat with relaxed body language like kneading or nuzzling is generally a sign of a calm and content feline. They could also be tasting something unfamiliar that spilled on your arm, having a moment of affection, or requesting your attention. Of course, compulsive self-licking could be a sign of an anxious kitty — especially if you notice thinning or bald spots — and should be addressed with your veterinarian. The takeaway? Social grooming by licking is a key feline behavior indicative of affection between cats and between cats and humans.