If the eyes are the window to the soul, your cat’s tongue is the key to their trust. Cat use their tongue for two key reasons: to test and taste the food before consuming it; and to groom, both themselves and those other cats and creatures that they feel an urge to look after. In other words, if a cat is using their tongue, they are showing trust in whatever they are licking. But the tongue is much more multipurpose than that, and a cat licking you can indicate several forms of intent.
Sometimes cats lick us simply because something tasty has found its way on to our skin. Cats enjoy delicious food as much as the next pet, and if something smells interesting, be it a perfume, some cooking oil, or salty sweat, they may try to lick it to see if it tastes nice. You can usually tell if your cat is more interested in taste than affection or attention because the duration of licking will be much less. As soon as they have tasted what made them curious, they will stop.
Mother cats frequently use their tongue to clean their kittens, just as all cats often groom themselves. But cats also use their body language and behaviour to communicate their needs, wants, and mood and grooming is one way that they speak to us. It is not uncommon to see cats grooming one another in quick succession, or even when the recipient is already clean. This is because grooming is a sign of affection and one way which cats bond with one another. By grooming, cats communicate that they care for and trust the other creature, whether it is another cat, another animal, or a human being, and that they want the other creature to trust and care for them, too. Cats also only groom when they are in a calm environment and feeling relaxed; so, if they are grooming you, they are telling you they feel content and safe.
Often, cats are highly independent and enjoy being able to take themselves off on their own to explore or rest without disturbance. However, they also enjoy affection and attention and, so, need to be able to communicate when they are ready for some cuddle and play time. Licking is a great way of letting you know that they are in the mood for company. So, when your cat starts running their tongue along your skin, it is time to stop what you’re doing and refocus your attention on them.
Although licking is a sign of affection and trust, some cats take it too far, either by being too rough or obsessing over you too often. Cats have small barbs on their tongue which, with regular licking, can start to be abrasive against the skin. The most effective way to discourage this behaviour, without stopping your cat from showing affection altogether, is to distract your cat. Because licking is also a sign of attention seeking, too, your cat is just as likely to play with you as to pamper you. So, instead of sitting back and letting them lick you, grab a toy and encourage them to play. Alternatively, push different body parts towards your cat to encourage them to place their attention elsewhere, rather than the usual spots they go for. By diversifying the areas of your body that they lick, it will be less painful.